Next big step for the Web--or a detour?

At a San Francisco conference, the W3C tries to establish the relevance of the Semantic Web, but skeptics abound.

SAN FRANCISCO--Is the "Semantic Web" the new Internet, or a complex technology in search of a problem to solve?

That's a question that advocates attending the Semantic Technology Conference here this week hope to put to rest. Standards specialists, venture capitalists, computer scientists and technology executives are meeting at the four-day conference to discuss enterprise applications for the Semantic Web--the World Wide Web Consortium's (W3C) growing collection of protocols designed to make a wealth of new information accessible and reusable through the Web.

Attempting to quell widespread skepticism, standards advocates say recent implementations of Semantic Web protocols by large technology companies herald the arrival of the Internet's next evolutionary phase.

Backers of the technology--led by W3C director Tim Berners-Lee, an Englishman who was knighted last year for his creation of the Web's first protocols--make big claims for it, comparing its advent to the dawn of the Web 10 years ago. Just as the Web encompassed existing Internet technologies while adding its revolutionary system of hyperlinks, so, they claim, will the Semantic Web give birth to vastly more powerful ways of gleaning information from the world's computer network.


What's new:
Advocates of the Semantic Web say it will give birth to vastly more powerful ways of gleaning information from the world's computer network.

Bottom line:
Claims about the technology's potential are being tempered by concerns about personal privacy and technological complexity--and suggestions that the Semantic Web is just a pie-in-the-sky notion. Semantic Web supporter Tim Berners-Lee, though, says that he heard the same notes of skeptism years ago regarding the World Wide Web.

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Such claims are being measured against concerns about personal privacy and technological complexity, and against perceptions that the Semantic Web activity is pie-in-the-sky artificial intelligence research that's distracting the consortium from its mission of maintaining fundamental "good enough" Web protocols. What's more, some analysts and technologists who follow the W3C's work closely say that even after years of work and the publication of several foundational documents, they still have no idea what the Semantic Web is.

"I'm not against any attempts to do more sophisticated knowledge management on the Web," said Peter O'Kelly, an analyst with the Burton Group. "But it's not entirely clear to me what problem these guys think they're solving. The simplicity and robustness of the Web we have today is one of the things that's made it so successful. The Semantic Web is not going to be as broadly applicable as the technologies we have today. With all due respect to Sir Tim, there's a lot of mileage left in the Web as we know it."

Berners-Lee said in an interview that the haze of confusion surrounding the Semantic Web activity has a familiar ring.

"It's akin to the responses I got years ago when I was trying to explain this Web thing to people, especially in industry," Berners-Lee said. "The idea of a universal information space with identifiers and one-way links was a paradigm shift. We didn't have the vocabulary then to describe the things we take for granted now with regards to the Web in general. So it is with the Semantic Web."

Selling the concept
This week's conference is intended, in part, to familiarize people with the vocabulary of the Semantic Web and sell a business-oriented audience on the idea that applications of the protocols are not only possible, but are already in use by companies including Adobe Systems, Hewlett-Packard, IBM, Nokia and Oracle.

Panels at the conference range from "The Semantic Broker as e-Commerce Enabler" to "Ontological Semantic Cognitive Data Measurement and Business Intelligence." Enterprise and government case studies also will be presented.

The Semantic Web protocols aim to let computers distinguish different kinds of data. Armed with those distinctions, applications could more automatically trade information, for example between an online address book and a cell phone. A Web site could automatically reconfigure

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