The Problem with Data that is Meta

Talk to geeks the world over, and they will wax lyrical about all the ways in which meta-data will save the world.

It will make your disk searchable.

It will provide a semantic framework for WWW content.

It will allow tools from different vendors to manage your workflow and asset files.

It can form the basis for archiving your digital life.

Sadly, it’s all a lie. The problem here is that by its nature, the data that is meta is still data, and therefore it is subject to all the same problems that the original data had in the first place:

- Everyone has to agree on a schema.

- Meta-data will evolve but the tools you have to manage it will not.

- Vendors with power will try and use meta-data as a leverage point to lock you into their tools, rather than as an interface point to allow mulitple tools to interoperate.

and so on.

An example of this problem that is near and dear to my heart is meta-data related to digital photographs. There are multiple standards (EXIF, IPTC, XMP) and multiple standards for embedding those standards into various standard file formats like JPEG. In addition, different camera vendors embed the data differently in their various proprietary formats (Nikon NEF files, for example). I had a workflow set up between Photoshop and iView that was working great for me mostly because Photoshop and iView agreed to write the EXIF data in the same place in all their files. This is something of a minor miracle, actually, as I was soon to find out.

Then I got Photoshop CS. One of the new features in the Adobe CS line is a completely new standard (XMP) for embedding meta-data into files. Adobe trumpets this new standard as a new extensible base for all your meta-data needs now and in the future. All I know is that iView can’t read the new data, so my entire workflow is shot, and I downgraded back to Photoshop 7 until I can find another solution.

Of course, if I were to just use the Adobe tools for this, I’d be all set, since presumably they all know how to read the same formats.

In other words, Adobe changed the schema, didn’t give people time to evolve the tools, and thus used the new meta-data standard to try and lock me in to their stuff, even though their file browser software blows.

Hallelujah and Amen.