Markdown is more or less a set of conventions for semi-structured plain text that can be fairly easily converted into HTML (or other formats). The idea is that its easy to read and write using text editors. This makes it great for wikis, and for source code documentation. Its the format used for most of the README files on Github, for example.
# This is a header Some text with bits in **bold** or in *italics*. > I'm a blockquote! ## Sub-header * Bullet one * Bullet two * Bullet three
Markdown has flourished despite the fact it isn’t really an open standard as such. There are numerous “flavours” of Markdown, such as GitHub-Flavoured Markdown, and different processing engines have their own extensions, particularly in areas where there is no common agreement on how to represent things such as tables and definition lists.
Despite this lack of consistency, Markdown works very well without ever becoming a de jure standard. The closest its got to standardisation is a community site on GitHub following a call to action by Jeff Atwood.
What has brought this into focus for me is the discussion around open formats for the UK government. Putting the (huge) issue of ODF versus OOXML to one side, I would actually prefer it if more government content was in an easy to read plain text format rather than in any flavour of whopping great office-style documents. In fact, wouldn’t it be excellent if they were to use Markdown?
Which is where the problem lies – its difficult for government to mandate or even recognise “standards” that have no clear provenance or governance model arising out of some sort of recognisable standards organisation. This isn’t a problem when its just a case of “using whatever works” as an individual developer (which is how sort-of standards like Markdown and RSS take off), but seems to be a major barrier when trying to formulate policy.
So sadly, unless there is a new concerted effort to make some sort of standardised Markdown, I don’t think my dream of reading government documents in markdown using TextEdit or on GitHub are likely to become a reality.