Interview: Stewart Nickolas

Stewart Nickolas, creator of IBM’s QEDWiki, working in the Emerging Technologies group in IBM for the past five years, will be a keynote speaker at WikiSym 2008.

We interviewed him by e-mail to know more about his involvement with wikis and web-related issues, concretely OpenAjax and application wikis.

Q: How is the OpenAjax Alliance related to wikis?

The OpenAjax organization was created a few years ago and is dedicated to the successful adoption of open and interoperable Ajax-based web technologies. Within the Alliance there are several working groups actively addressing key challenges in achieving interoperability across the many Ajax toolkits. Some of the challenges include: How can toolkits coexist on a single page without corrupting the page? How do toolkits communicate with one another on the same page? How are widgets described in a common way so that aggregation canvases such as Wikis, Mashup Makers and traditional IDEs can use the widgets? Through our work with QEDWiki we recognized the importance of hosting content from multiple providers. Each content provider may use different Ajax toolkits to deliver a rich experience within a single page. To address this problem we originally developed a proprietary proof-of-concept technology for QED; however, we felt it was necessary to have open standards to enable and extend the content delivery ecosystem around Wikis, Mashups & content providers.

Q: Which companies can join the OpenAjax Alliance?

The Alliance has an open membership (see primary reason to join is to participate in the work groups and committees. The organization is very transparent; all information including meeting minutes, specifications and source code is available on the Alliance’s wiki and sourceforge. The Alliance has 100+ member companies. The list of members is located here:

Q: When and how did the idea of creating a “task force” devoted to Web technologies come up?

Through our work with QEDWiki we realized the importance of the ecosystem surrounding Wikis & Mashups. The ecosystem consisted of Wiki users/Mashup Assemblers, content providers, content aggregators and content catalogs. We initially developed a proprietary plugin format for QEDWiki that enabled the integration of external data and rich user interface elements for the ecosystem. We recognized the importance of choice among the various participants within this ecosystem, and therefore began to work within the OpenAjax Alliance on an initiative related to content discovery and use within a variety of assembly metaphors from Wikis and browser based mashup makers to traditional IDEs.

Q: What are the main tasks of the group?

The exact charters of the various workgroups and task forces vary given the specific focus of the sub group in question. The workgroups directly related to the ecosystem we’ve discussed are:

  • Interoperability Work Group – which provides the ability to combine JavaScript components from multiple Ajax toolkits within the same Web application and have those components interact with each other;
  • Communications Hub Task Force – whose purpose is to create a publish/subscribe event manager, which enables loose assembly and integration of Ajax components;
  • IDE Work Group – whose task is to establish industry standards for describing Visual and non-visual Controls and Ajax library APIs for use in design-time and potentially run-time scenarios.

These groups typically meet weekly and the work product varies from group-to-group depending upon the charter. The IDE Work Group for example has produced a specification for Ajax based widget interoperability. The Gadgets Task Force has contributed recommendations to the IDE Work Group as well as an implementation of the IDE Workgroup Specification.

Q: Is the OpenAjax Alliance a frequent presence in events like WikiSym? What are the main advantages of participating such events?

A key focus of the Alliance is the adoption and interoperability of Ajax-based web technologies. As web technologies such as Wikis continue to evolve and push the envelope regarding rich internet applications, sophisticated incremental server interactions and embedding content from a variety of origins, the specifications, libraries and best practices offered by the Alliance have direct application to Wikis. The Work Groups and task forces within the Alliance participate in many conferences and related events to socialize the efforts of the group.

Q: What are Applications Wikis?

Application Wikis are environments for collaborative, situational (ad hoc) dynamic content development. As such they:

  • Facilitate the creation web solutions for non-programmers who are domain experts;
  • Further mark-up based Wiki development model by adding active content via plug-in models;
  • Enable Wiki users to weave together a “good enough” solution Wikis provide built-in collaboration and versioning capabilities that are key components which enable the creation of simple applications or “Situational Apps”.

Situational Apps are usually built to solve an immediate, specific business problem. This is accomplished by blending externalities with business-private content & services. The ability to collaborate and quickly iterate are vital requirements for situated applications. Regarding our work with QEDWiki, the wiki platform enabled us to begin with a collaborative environment built around sharing and build out from there. Application Wikis empower the end user to assemble solutions in minutes with built-in versioning and immediate deployment. Applications are shared with the business ecosystem and can easily be discovered by others. The wiki model enables users to assemble-wire-share-discover pages and applications very quick and easily.

Q: If there’s anything else you want to say or that you think that is relevant to share…

As we look back at the evolution of the web, Web 1.0 focused on the democratization of information, Web 2.0 focused on the democratization of information creation and sharing. As the Web continues to evolve we see signs of the executable & semantic phase of content. We have also reached information overload in our daily lives. As we’re entering the petabyte age we are rethinking the traditional model of science, othesize-model-test in the face of massive amounts of data. We’re finding we can just ask the data, there are no models. If you had a copy of the internet what would you ask it? If you could see everything ever written at once, how would it look, and what could it tell us?

Thanks for your time. Looking forward to meet you in Porto!

Alda Silva e Ana Ferreira. FEUP, Porto

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