Semantic Web ready for mainstream use

All the technologies are now in place to make the data-driven Web a reality, according to Tim Berners-Lee.

Jonathan Bennett Special to CNET News.com
3 min read
The Semantic Web, where machines are able to read the contents of documents as readily as people can, now has all the standards and technologies it needs to succeed, according to W3C director Tim Berners-Lee.

Speaking at the World Wide Web 2006 conference in Edinburgh, Scotland, on Wednesday, Berners-Lee, the inventor of the Web, said it is now time for Web developers and content producers to start using semantic languages in addition to HTML.

A panel discussion titled "The next wave of the Web" kicked off the second day of the conference and marked the start of the technical conference content. Nigel Shadbolt, professor of computer science at the University of Southampton, told the conference attendees that what has been achieved with the Web so far is astounding by itself.

"We've produced an information infrastructure that few would have anticipated, with the possible exception of Vannevar Bush, but I think even he would have thought the scale of all this extraordinary. Fifty years ago, it might have appeared audacious, perhaps even inconceivable, that we could have built the kind of global infrastructure that now surrounds us," said Shadbolt.

However, the Web is still a mass of unstructured data with little to link groups of documents together, and no way for computers to manipulate the information in Web pages. The Semantic Web project aims to solve this problem by adding machine-readable content to the Web.

Berners-Lee said that building the stack of technologies needed to make the Semantic Web a reality has taken some time, but that we're now at the stage where the technologies can be used.

"We set out five years ago with the famous layer cake diagram, saying we're going to need RDF (resource description framework) as a data language, we're going to need an ontology language, we're going to need query and rules languages. We've been making our way through that," said Berners-Lee.

The last layer of that cake has recently been finalized. Berners-Lee explained that "the Query language, SPARQL, is now in the candidate recommendation phase, which means it's time to implement it. Without SPARQL, we could say the stack was fairly incomplete. Then suddenly we realized, 'Just imagine that you've been trying to sell relational database systems with just a data language but no query language.'"

This last step will be the biggest, because it will allow a link between the old Web and the new, Semantic Web. "SPARQL is going to make a huge difference, because behind a SPARQL server you can put a huge amount of existing data and then serve it up to the Semantic Web," said Berners-Lee.

The Semantic Web project is already ahead of its creators' original expectations. Jim Hendler, one of the authors of the original semantic Web proposal and also on the panel, told the conference that "when we were putting the article together we were thinking of it as a 10-year vision. My greatest surprise was that technologically a lot of these pieces fell into place sooner than I expected."

Jonathan Bennett of Builder UK reported from London.