Saturday, April 14, 2007

XForms and the Chasm: What XForms Need to Become a Mainstream Technology

Geoff Moore wrote a very insightful book on technology adoption called “Crossing the Chasm”. If you study the psychology of technology adoption, you find that people and organization fall in a bell curve. About 2% are innovators, 14% are early adopters, 33% early majority, 33% late majority and 15% are laggards. This is all standard stuff out of basic marketing-psychology textbooks. Each group has different reasons for using (or not using) a specific product.

Moore's insight was that many new products never move from early adopters to early majority. He called this region “The Chasm”. I have found that the same rules applyto new standards and new languages.

Moore did a lot of analysis on why some new technologies don’t make it across the chasm despite their merits or why some standards are adopted over others. Hisbiggest finding is that they were just too hard to use by non-techies. They required too much work to setup, install or learn. Ease-of-use was a principal factor in many technologies not being quickly adopted by organizations that did not want to use technology to differentiate their organization. Early Majority customers also tend to purchase new technology not based on how they work but who is using them in their industry. They purchase on references.

New technologies usually need a focused approach in a specific industry to be adopted by an early majority. If an organization can target a specific vertical industry and provide a more complete solution for that industry, once a few reference accounts are set up the rest of the industry can see there are proven case studies.

Another factor is the need of the early majority for complete solutions. Innovators and Early adopters are willing to glue together new technologies into their existing fabric of solutions. They dedicate time, staff and money to do this. If their XForms sends XML data over REST interfaces and their databases use JDBC they hire programmers to write middle-tier applications.

But early majority buyers can’t justify that additional cost. They just want a solution to work out-of-the-box. They are OK paying for a week for training for their BAs, but they don’t want to write and maintain complex applications.

Another thing that I have been searching for are metaphors that are understandable by non-programmers. Since the high-level decision makers are usually non-technical their ability to make a decision is usually based on their trust of the developers or their understanding based on metaphors.

The Language Translation Metaphor I find that if you can send your data from an XForms application directly to a native XML database in XML format that there is no need for middle-tier objects or shredding into relational databases. No translation is involved. One of the ways to demonstrate how machine-based language translation is not always semantically precise is to try an automatic translation program. Convert a statement from a native language into a foreign language and then translate it back. For example try this using Google Language Tools at

Original Phrase in English: The quick brown fox jumped over the lazy dog.

Google Translation to Spanish El zorro marrón rápido saltó sobre el perro perezoso.

Spanish Translation Back to English The fast brown fox jumped on the sluggish dog.

Although Google translate does a pretty good job, quick was changed to fast, over was changed to on, and lazy was changed to sluggish. If you study semantics, you can find lots of problems trying to communicate with close approximations. Note the original implicit business rule of don’t repeat a letter was also lost. We have many implicit business rules in complex systems and translation of these to other formats is always problematic for software developers.

Saving XML using an object-middle tier is one translation. Saving objects to a relational database is a second translation. Fetching data from a database using SQL is a third translation. Converting tabular data into objects is a fourth translation and converting objects back to XML is a fifth transformation. There are five translations, not just two.

Not that XForms solutions today are not without translation. In our process we are planning to convert XML Schemas into XForms as well as initial instance data. We need to also import leaf-level definitions from a metadata registry. But the nice thing about this process is that we can validate the submitted data directly against the original XML Schema that was used to generate the XForms. An elegant self-checking pattern.

All of these transforms are possible. But all have to be maintained each time you change your XML Schema. Right now we also need great tools that translate XML Schemas directly into XForms. And these need to retain the fidelity of the original intent of the subject matter experts.

So perhaps deploying applications with native XML databases is a critical part of the XForms value proposition.

Moore also noted that both early late majority buyers would be more willing to use a technology if it was buried deeply in a complete solution. That way the IT managers don’t have to sell the technology to management, just the solution. Similarly, once third party developers start building accounting or complete solutions for vertical industry using XForms the buyer will not need to know or care how the solution is being delivered.


Arun said...

Dan, I like your viewpoint about mass adoption. I would like to discuss this further with you. Achieving simplicity is so much harder especially in a nascent emerging domain. What is essential and what is not can only be determined as we experiment...the problem is people run out of steam before crossing that simplicity barrier.

Ed said...

I believe the value proposition of XForms is greatly enhanced when used with XML Databases. It is a great combination. Unfortunately, the world is not ready for an all xml solution. At least not yet