of Hypertext and Graphical User Interfaces

Microcosm (cf. 2.1.13) is a research project at the University of Southampton. Like Intermedia five years before, Microcosm is designed around the idea that material of diverse sources and formats should be tied together into one hypertext. To achieve this goal links have to be separated from the documents. They are stored and maintained in special link databases. In contrast to Intermedia, Microcosm plays the active role in gathering the necessary data out of the documents. For each topic it stores data on which documents contain information about it and also where inside the documents the information is located. This elaborated conception of links can be seen more as a kind of Memex’ trails than simple one-to-one links. Given this structure dynamic linking becomes possible. This means that links can be associated with generic text strings. Wherever this string shows up a link is placed automatically. This has the effect that documents that are imported for the first time into Microcosm can have links immediately.

Microcosm becomes the prototype of an Open Hypermedia System (OHS) and is under continuous research and development until today.

2.1.13 Microcosm

in Vision and Reality of Hypertext and Graphical User Interfaces

Wendy Hall recalls the motivation that led to the development of Microcosm at the University of Southampton as follows [Gillies/Cailliau 2000, p. 128]:

I’d got the challenge from our activists, who said “We’ve got all this stuff about Lord Mountbatten and we want to be able to link it all together.”
Whatever system I was using, whether it was Word or a database or a spreadsheet or whatever, I wanted links that went across those processes, across applications. So I thought of links as being separate entities that you could apply.
What if someone’s written an essay or a criticism, or there’s a textbook about Mountbatten? We want to link to that as well, you know. Those were the problems I was trying to solve.

In contrast to the ideal laboratory situation of the Intermedia team, Wendy Hall has neither influence on the file formats, nor on the application programs. She has to cope with a real life situation of heterogeneous data formats. The approach she took, like Intermedia’s, is based on the separation between content and linking information. The link data is stored in link databases, called linkbases for short, and can be overlaid on arbitrary document types [Lowe/Hall 99, p. 333].

Microcosm supports three kinds of links with fixed destinations. They are defined by Hugh Davis in Towards an Integrated Information Environment with Open Hypermedia Applications as follows [Davis et al. 92, p. 184]:

The specific link is a link from a particular object at a specific point in a source document that connects to a particular object in a destination document.

The local link is a link from a particular object at any point in a specific document that connects to a particular object in a destination document.

The generic link is a link from a particular object at any position in any document that connects to a particular object in a destination document.

A local link can connect entire documents with each other. This is similar to basic links in Storyspace. Generic links are a generalization of Hyperties’ exclusive linking mechanism. Wherever a dedicated marker shows up a link to the corresponding destination is created.

Microcosm provides also functions for dynamic linking. Dynamic hyperlinks are links without fixed source or destination. The target is computed based on text retrieval algorithms like grep, or is based on proximity between vocabulary of the two documents. Gillies and Cailliau continue with Hall’s scenario [Gillies/Cailliau 2000, p. 129]:

[A] request to Microcosm to find links about [Mountbatten’s Burma] campaigns could take you to the precise page […]. And if you try the same request some time later, after someone has added a map of the Burma campaigns, dynamic linking means that Microcosm will now find that too.

How is it possible for Microcosm to implement this set of features for standard applications on standard operating systems? «Microcosm is best understood as a set of autonomous communicating processes which supplement the facilities provided by the operating system» [Davis et al. 92, p. 183]. A protocol is defined that uses the Dynamic Data Exchange service on Windows (DDE), Apple Events on Macintosh, and Sockets on Unix. Fully aware Microcosm applications use the protocol to pass information about the documents to Microcosm’s linkbases, and to receive commands to highlight special passages if a document is requested as a link destination. Partially aware applications implement at least the menu for Microcosm, e.g. Microsoft Word can be extended to be partially aware by a special plug-in.

It is a problem for Microcosm, if a document is edited by an applications program that is not aware of the linking facilities of the system. Links might get out of date. It is also unfavorable if documents are moved or renamed in the file hierarchy.

Microcosm follows the Open Hypermedia Model that will be presented in section 2.2.3 Open Hypermedia Systems (p. 43).

Update 12/2018

Microcosm Screenshot /via Cooperative Work in Microcosm, 1995

Update 8/2021

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