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.

Software
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.

News.context

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.

More stories on the World Wide Web Consortium

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 itself on the fly based on the needs of a particular visitor. Search engines could narrow down results with greater precision.

"This is about connecting the data to its definition and context," Eric Miller, Semantic Web activity lead for the W3C, said in a Tuesday keynote address to several hundred conference participants. "We're moving from a Web of documents to a Web of data.

The W3C acknowledges that existing technologies already satisfy some of the needs the Semantic Web is designed to fill. One is the consortium's XML recommendation for creating highly descriptive and computer-friendly markup languages. Others have to do with rapidly evolving database management systems.

"It's not entirely clear to me what problem these guys think they're solving."
--Peter O'Kelly,
analyst, Burton Group

But Berners-Lee and others developing the new technology envision a comprehensive shift in the way data is exposed to the Web.

"When a large enterprise designs lots of database schemas and XML schemas, the designers are making arbitrary design choices about exactly how to build the system," Berners-Lee said.

"These choices have no actual connection to the real application, yet they are baked into the system," he added. "Anyone who uses the data has to know what these decisions are."

Key goals for the Semantic Web architects include reuse of data and what backers call "recombinant effects."

They hope that by letting computers digest and exchange information about context and meaning--a word that raises the hackles of artificial intelligence critics--they will allow data to survive the systems where it originated and traverse different applications as easily as browsers traverse the Web's billions of pages today. As that data takes on a virtual life of its own, it could be exploited and combined in unexpected and unexpectedly profitable ways, the thinking goes.

"The really exciting thing isn't that you can merge your own data between applications--that's like links on your own Web site," Berners-Lee said. "The really exciting thing happens when others have their data in a mergeable format and make it available. When that public information becomes mergeable, we're in for the next, very pronounced stage of Web evolution."

Security worries
That brave new world of interchangable data--"exposing data hiding in documents, servers and databases," in Miller's words--elicits both skepticism and alarm from critics of the emerging project.

One concern is that businesses with a Semantic Web presence may have a new headache in trying to prevent information from being unintentionally shared.

"We don't want to have this universal network of knowledge that makes everything accessible to all parties," said the Burton Group's O'Kelly. "Companies need to be circumspect about disclosure."

The W3C, acknowledging concerns about corporate and personal privacy, says it plans a Semantic Web rules system for information sharing. The consortium is calling for position papers by March 18 for its workshop on rule languages for interoperability, set for April 27-28 in Washington, D.C.

Even though crucial protocols are still in the idea phase, the W3C is insisting that the Web's next big evolutionary shift has already begun.

Eric Miller
Eric Miller
Semantic Web
activity lead, W3C

The W3C's Miller devoted much of his keynote address--titled "The Semantic Web is Here"--to existing examples of Semantic Web technologies being developed or rolled out by major companies.

Nokia, for example, maintains long-standing Semantic Web activity of its own and has made its Semantic Web toolkit, known as Wilbur, available on the SourceForge.net open-source development site.

Miller hailed the way Nokia has used Semantic Web specifications, particularly RDF, or Resource Description Framework, in its Series 60 phones and in its developers' forum. In one of Miller's examples, RDF metadata, or data about data, lets phones communicate to Web sites about how much bandwidth they have. In another, RDF lets Nokia automatically serve pages individually tailored for developers of particular applications for certain phones.

Miller also cited other examples: HP's use of Semantic Web technologies in its work building an online education resource for the government of Singapore; the IBM Internet Technology Group's development of Semantic Web applications, especially those in the life sciences; Adobe's addition of RDF-based XMP (Extensible Metadata Platform) in its Creative Suite, which Adobe says sits on more than 700,000 computers; and Oracle's inclusion of the RDF Network Data Model in its Oracle Database 10.2, due out later in the year.

Also during his keynote, Miller laid out plans to spread the Semantic Web religion. He said he plans to ask the W3C membership to endorse a working group devoted to Semantic Web education and communication, and he also plans a Semantic Web symposium for CTOs and CIOs June 22-24 at a yet-to-be-determined West Coast location.

After years of being called artificial-intelligence throwbacks with their heads in the clouds, Semantic Web backers point to these real-world implementations with evident satisfaction.

"The Semantic Web is starting to take off now," Berners-Lee said. "It is not yet so developed that (implementers) keep bumping into people doing related things yet--we are not yet really seeing the benefit of application areas being connected together in unexpected ways. But in certain areas, the critical mass has been passed. At the recent Semantic Web and life sciences workshop...there was serious excitement about the opportunities in integrating across life science disciplines, like genomics, proteomics, clinical trial and epidemiological data and so on."

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