Tonight's Emerging Technology SIG meeting on microformats was a mixed bag. On the one hand there were a lot of clever people in the room, in the audience as well as the panel, who knew a lot about microformats. During the discussion there was some interesting fencing between certain audience members and the panel and they maneuvered to capture the high ground.
On the other hand most of the talks went over the head of the general audience who came along to find out what microformats are. Fortunately there was a person in the front row who after the initial talk baffled most of us, was old and wise enough to be able to ask the question "What are microformats and can you give us three simple examples of how they are used?"
Part of my problem is that I went into the meeting with some concept of what I want microformats to be. I want little pieces of embedded HTML/XML that can go in web pages, emails etc. that both renders as a normal text and at the same time contains structured data that can be interpreted by software.
For example if I am looking at a web page or an email that contains a meeting announcement in a microformat, I would like to both read the meeting announcement and to right click it and be given a context menu that would contain "Add to Calendar ..." amongst other actions. Selecting "Add to Calendar ..." would bring up the Calendar application which then could add the event without further intervention.
To make this happen the browser or email client would have to know that I was right clicking a microformat, and know a list of applications that would be able to deal with that microformat. For example, I may want to add the calendar entry to my calendar or to my blog. Also, the application receiving the microformat needs to know how to deal with it.
From the meeting, I gather that this is close to what microformats are, although they also seem to be something that is elusively more that this. Unfortunately the microformats.org web site is particularly unwilling to take a position on what they are, preferring to have a completely abstract definition, while at the same time give concrete examples of particular microformats.