A tour of the open standards used by Google Buzz

The thing I find most attractive about Google Buzz is its stated commitment to open standards:

We believe that the social web works best when it works like the rest of the web — many sites linked together by simple open standards.

So I took a bit of time to look over the standards involved. I’ll focus here on the standards that are new to me.

One key design decision in Google Buzz is that individuals in the social web should be identifiable by email addresses (or at least strings that look like email addresses).  On balance I agree with this decision: although it is perhaps better from a purist Web architecture perspective to use URIs for this, I think email addresses work much better from a UI perspective.

Google Buzz therefore has some standards to address the resulting discovery problem: how to associate metadata with something that looks like an email address. There are two key standards here:

  • XRD. This is a simple XML format developed by the OASIS XRI TC for representing metadata about a resource in a generic way. This looks very reasonable and I am happy to see that it is free of any XRI cruft. It seems quite similar to RDDL.
  • WebFinger. This provides a mechanism for getting from an email address to an XRD file.  It’s a two-step process based on HTTP.  First of all you HTTP get an XRD file from a well-known URI constructed using the domain part of the email address (the well-known URI follows the Defining Well-Known URIs and host-meta Internet Drafts). This per-domain XRD file provides (amongst other things) a URI template that tells you how to construct a URI for an email address in that domain; dereferencing this URI will give you an XRD representation of metadata related to that email address.  There seem to be some noises about a JSON serialization, which makes sense: JSON seems like a good fit for this problem. 

One of the many interesting things you can do with such a discovery mechanism is to associate a public key with an individual.  There’s a spec called Magic Signatures that defines this.  Magic Signatures correctly eschews all the usual X.509 cruft, which is completely unnecessary here; all you need is a simple RSA public key.  My one quibble would be that it invents its own format for public keys, when there is already a perfectly good standard format for this: the DER encoding of the RSAPublicKey ASN.1 structure (defined by RFC 3477/PKCS#1), as used by eg OpenSSL.

Note that for this to be secure, WebFinger needs to fetch the XRD files in a secure way, which means either using SSL or signing the XRD file using XML-DSig; in both these cases it is leveraging the existing X.509 infrastructure. The key architectural decision here is to use the X.509 infrastructure to establish trust at the domain level, and then to use Web technologies to extend that chain of trust from the domain to the individual. From a deployment perspective, I think this will work well for things like Gmail and Facebook, where you have many users per domain.  The challenge will be do make it work well for things like Google Apps for your Domain, where the number of users per domain may be few.  At the moment, Google Apps requires the domain administrator only to set up some DNS records.  The problem is that DNS isn’t secure (at least until DNSSEC is widely deployed).  Here’s one possible solution: the user’s domain (e.g. jclark.com) would have an SRV record pointing to a host in the provider’s domain (e.g. foo.google.com); the XRD is fetched using HTTP, but is signed using XML-DSig and  an X.509 certificate for the user’s domain.  The WebFinger service provider (e.g. Google) would take care of issuing these certificates, perhaps with flags to limit their usage to WebFinger (Google already verifies domain control as part of the Google Apps setup process). The trusted roots here might be different from the normal browser vendor determined HTTPS roots.

The other part of Magic Signatures is billed as a simpler alternative to XML-DSig which also works for JSON. The key idea here is to avoid the whole concept of signing an XML information item and thus avoid the need for canonicalization.  Instead you sign a byte sequence, which is encoded in base64 as the content of an XML element (or as a JSON string).  I don’t agree with the idea of always requiring base64 encoding of the content to be signed: that seems to unnecessarily throw away many of the benefits of a textual format.  Instead, when the byte sequence that you are signing is representing a Unicode string, you should be able to represent the Unicode string directly as the content of an XML element or as a JSON string, using the built-in quoting mechanisms of XML (character references/entities and CDATA sections) or JSON. The Unicode string that results from XML or JSON parsing would be UTF-8 encoded before the standard signature algorithm is applied. A more fundamental problem with Magic Signatures is that it loses the key feature of XML-DSig (particularly with enveloped signatures) that applications that don’t know or care about signing can still understand the signed data, simply by ignoring the signature.  I completely sympathize with the desire to avoid the complexity of XML-DSig, but I’m unconvinced that Magic Signatures is the right way to do so. Note that XRD has a dependency on XML-DSig, but it specifies a very limited profile of XML-DSig, which radically reduces the complexity of XML-DSig processing. For JSON, I think i

There are also standards that extend  Atom. The simplest are just content extensions:

  • Atom Activity Extensions provides semantic markup for social networking activities (such as "liking" something or posting something). This makes good sense to me.
  • Media RSS Module provides extensions for dealing with multimedia content. These were originally designed by Yahoo for RSS. I don't yet understand how these interact with existing Atom/AtomPub mechanisms for multimedia (content/@src, link).

There are also protocol extensions:

  • PubSubHubbub provides a scalable way of getting near-realtime updates from an Atom feed. The Atom feed includes a link to a “hub”.  An aggregator can then register with hub to be notified when a feed is updated. When a publisher updates a feed, it pings the hub and the hub then updates all the aggregators that have registered with it.  This is intended for server-based aggregators, since the hub uses HTTP POST to notify aggregators.
  • Salmon makes feed aggregation two-way.  Suppose user A uses only social networking site X and user B uses only social networking site Y. If user A wants to network with B, then typically either A has to join Y or B has to join X.  This pushes the world in the direction of having one dominant social network (i.e. Facebook). In the long-term I don’t think this is a good thing.  The above extensions solve part of the problem. X can expose a profile for A that links to an Atom feed, and Y can use this to provide B with information about A. But there’s a problem.  Suppose B wants to comment on one of A’s entries.  How can Y ensure that B’s comment flows back to X, where A can see it?  Note that there may be another user C on another social networking site Z that may want to see B’s comment on A’s entry. The basic idea is simple: the Atom feed for A exposed by X links to a URI to which comments can be posted.  The heavy lifting of Salmon is done by Magic Signatures.  Signing the Atom entries is the key to allowing sites to determine whether to accept comments.

Google seems to planning to use the Open Web Foundation (OWF) for some of these standards.  Although the OWF’s list of members includes many names that I recognize and respect, I don’t really understand why we need the OWF. It seems very similar to the IETF in its emphasis on individual participation.  What was the perceived deficiency in the IETF that motivated the formation of the OWF?


Mac Day 1

I decided to dip my toe in the Mac world and buy a Mac mini. If I decide to make the switch, I will probably end up getting a fully tricked out MacBook Pro, but I'm not ready for that yet and I want to wait for the expected MacBook Pro refresh.

I've been using it for 24 hours.


  • The hardware is beautiful. The attention to detail is fantastic. Somebody has taken the time to think about even something as mundane as the power cord (it's less stiff than normal power cords and curls nicely). The whole package exudes quality.
  • It's reassuring to have something Unix-like underneath.
  • Mostly things "just work".
  • The dock is quite pretty and intuitive.
  • Set up was smooth and simple.


  • The menu bar is an abomination. When you have a large screen, it makes no sense to have the menus always at the top left of the screen, which may well be far from the application window.
  • On screen font rendering seems less good than Windows. I notice this particularly in Safari. It's tolerable, but the Mac is definitely a step down in quality here.
  • I was surprised how primitive the application install, update and removal experience was. I miss apt-get. Many updates seem to require a restart.
  • I don't like the wired Apple mouse. Although it looks nice, clicking is not as easy as with a cheap, conventional mouse, plus the lead is way too short.

Minor nits

  • How is a new user supposed to find the web browser? The icon is a compass (like the iPhone icon that gives a real compass) and the tooltip says "Safari".
  • A Safari window with tabs looks ugly to me: there's this big band of gray and black at the top of the window.
  • Not convinced DisplayPort has sufficient benefits over HDMI to justify a separate standard.
  • I couldn't find a way of playing a VCD using the standard applications. I ended up downloading VLC, which worked fine.
  • The Magnification preference on the Dock was not on by default, even though it was enabled in the introductory Apple video.

So far I've installed:

  • NeoOffice
  • Adium (didn't work well with MSN, which is the dominant chat system in Thailand, so I will probably remove it)
  • Microsoft Messenger
  • Emacs
  • Blogo, which I am using to write this. Is there a better free equivalent to Windows Live Writer?
  • VLC
  • Skype

I plan to install

  • XCode
  • iWork

Any other software I should install? Should I be using something other than Safari as my Web browser?