Picoformats: microformats for mobile

Andrew Turner pinged me about a project I started up as an offshoot to my work with Mozes called Picoformats. He wrote that a picoformat is a standard-means for defining markup in small, probably mobile, devices.

That’s not exactly the original idea, but it actually makes a lot of sense and, the more that Tara and I use our Blackberries, the more we see a need for standard micro-interfaces. Sure it’s great that you can download my hcard into your address book from your regular web browser, but the same seems not to hold true on mobile devices.

Anyway, that’s an issue that needs to be addressed in mobile browsers, and Opera‘s well on their way working on such problems.

Andrew’s post did highlight both the need for me to get the word out about this project and also explain it a little more clearly since Microformats could actually address the formating of data for mobile devices (especially when we start pairing up microformatted content with relevant media-specific CSS).

The goal of the Picoformats project is to use an open process that reflects existing behavior and come up with standards for an SMS-based dialect for interacting with mobile services.

Dodgeball already has a pretty good SMS/email dialect. In fact, I use it all the time. What I want is service interoperability, so that when I send a message to (okay, I’ll reveal my bias) Mozes, I can use the same syntax to compose the command or message. For example, if I send a message formed like this: “! heading to the movies at 10pm”, it shouldn’t matter if I’m on Dodgeball, Facebook Mobile, MySpace Mobile, or FactoryCity Mobile — each service that supports Picoformats should send out the blast message to my friends, just as I’d expect it to. But already there’s divergence — with Mozes using “@” for blast messages and Dodgeball using “!”. This is the kind of thing that will make it extremely hard for people to move between services or, worse yet, use a multitude of services.

You can probably begin to see how this is similar to life before Adium or Trillian. Personally, I like not having to run 5 different instant messenger apps. I like having them all in one and being able to IM my friends regardless of the service they’re on from one interface. I’d like to be able to do the same with the mobile services I use. And that’s why this Picoformats idea is important — it’s syntactic interoperability.

Author: Chris Messina

Head of West Coast Business Development at Republic. Ever-curious product designer and technologist. Hashtag inventor. Previously: Molly.com (YC W18), Uber, Google.

5 thoughts on “Picoformats: microformats for mobile”

  1. I totally agree on this chris ! I have’nt worked much on microformatst but I would be closely looking at picoformats as mobile is where I am spending a lot of my attention.


  2. From my experience, it is unlikely if not impossible to push standards through to all mobile devices. It’s a question of power. Each manufacturer seems to try to push their standards and extinct all possible competitor. Already today, we have at least 5 different way of triggering the SMS application of a mobile handset. , WTAI, i-mode, webinterface, … just to mention a few.
    I think in the mobile industry the struggle for market share is much more competitive because each % of market share may translate into pure revenue in the future. All straight via phone bill.

  3. Well SMS standards is a different beast than picoformats… since picoformats only deals with the *content* of the SMS, which should be fairly universally supported.

    The goal is to come up with community-based standards (that is, message syntax that people actually use in real life) to help make it easier not only to remember how to SMS services and get things done, but so that more services can be built out without having different namespaces or syntaxes overlap and cause problems… What if “quit” and “stop” mean different things at different services and you forget which service uses which word? Wouldn’t it be better if there was *one* word across all services that did the same thing?

    It’s kind of like developing a command line for cell phones… a syntax for expressing things that works no matter what SMS-to-web service you’re using!

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