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W3C advances Semantic Web drafts

Aiming to rehabilitate both the technology and the image of its Semantic Web initiative, the standards group issues a number of updates and promises an education campaign.

Aiming to rehabilitate both the technology and the image of its Semantic Web initiative, the Web's leading standards group has issued a number of updates and promised a spring and summer education campaign.

The World Wide Web Consortium (W3C) last week issued five updated working drafts for the Web Ontology Language (OWL): the OWL Overview, Guide, Reference, Semantics and Abstract Syntax, and Use Cases and Requirements.

Altogether, the specifications provide the most detailed layer of the W3C's model for describing data on the Web so that computers can "understand" more about what the data is and how it fits in context with other data.

The OWL releases join another six Semantic Web updates that the W3C made early in the year of the Resource Description Framework (RDF): the RDF Concepts and Abstract Syntax; Semantics; Primer; Vocabulary Description Language 1.0: RDF Schema; the revised RDF/XML Syntax Specification; and the Test Cases.

The RDF, in contrast to OWL, presents a lower-level method of describing data. While OWL provides a way to contextualize information and establish relationships between documents and concepts (such as author to document to subject), the RDF irons out more basic methods of describing data in a way that computers can understand.

"We're trying to make the Semantic Web as easy as it is now to join relational database tables," said Eric Miller, activity lead for the W3C's Semantic Web Activity and a research scientist at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology. "The Semantic Web technologies are designed to enable data from different places to be seamlessly integrated."

Miller described the year's upgrades as an "overall cleanup," explaining that testers had found previous versions lacking in terms of stability and interoperability.

Analysts have criticized the Semantic Web for being everything from a pie-in-the-sky artificial intelligence scheme to a legitimate idea that's too far ahead of its time to warrant the consortium's resources as it struggles to get basic Web services standards published.

To counter these images of the Semantic Web as something too futuristic or eccentric, the W3C has scheduled several evangelical events. These include the "W3C Semantic Tour" of Europe in June and a seminar called "Semantic Web is Here--Are You Ready?" in early May at the W3C's office in Helsinki, Finland. Both events are free of charge and open to the public.

"We haven't done a good enough job as we would like explaining what we're trying to do with the Semantic Web," said Miller of the technology's current reputation. "It's not rocket science, but a set of simple enabling technologies for data integration on the Web."

Miller also defended the W3C's continuing investment in the Semantic Web while businesses are still demanding more work on Web services standards. The two technical areas should be considered complementary and not competitive, Miller said, comparing them to the Web's basic transmission and markup languages.

"I see these as incredibly symbiotic relationships," said Miller. "I see the Semantic Web as providing the enabling technologies that do effective data integration, and Web services doing the technology for effective data transmission. In essence, to me, the technologies that we're working on are the correlates of HTTP (Hypertext Transport Protocol) and HTML (Hypertext Markup Language)."

The next step for the RDF and OWL drafts is the W3C's candidate recommendation stage. That designation is expected for RDF Core in the next few weeks, while OWL is scheduled for a May 9 status upgrade.