BOSTON—To envision the Internet of the future, W3C director and WWW founding father Tim Berners-Lee suggested during the W3Cs 10-year birthday bash here Wednesday, first envision groceries—say a box of rice.
On the boxs side, in small, rice grain-sized type, you will find nutrition information. On its back, you will find directions on how to cook it. Somewhere else you may find a URL that you can use to research any number of rice-related things: recipes, country of agricultural origin, Uncle Ben company data or relevant information pertaining to the allergenic nature of rice, perhaps.
The Web of the future, for which Berners-Lee, the W3C and other research and industrial partners have been working to lay the foundation since about 2000, will give us a rice box that, when scanned, electronically unfurls that multifaceted, rice-related Web of data—without having to squint at dinky type.
Thats one small example of the futuristic architecture called the Semantic Web. The new Web paradigm provides a common framework for data to be shared and reused across applications, enterprises and community boundaries. Its founded on XML-based integration of applications as well as URIs (Uniform Resource Identifiers) for naming.
Its exciting stuff, but it is as difficult to explain why as it was difficult to explain, 10 years ago, what was so exciting about the Web, Berners-Lee said during the W3Cs daylong birthday celebration.
“Pre-Web, it was really, really difficult to explain to anybody why the Web was exciting,” he said. “I could show them a window, click on a line of text, then another window would pop up. Big deal. The idea that that link could go anywhere, you could say that in English, but it takes a certain amount of imagination [to picture the potential].”
Nonetheless, work on the Semantic Web is ramping up. In February, the W3C released recommendations for two of its major foundations: the RDF (Resource Description Framework) and the OWL (Web Ontology Language).
The W3C also has begun to roll out workshops to educate those who are likely to be early adopters of the framework: In October, it held a workshop for life sciences.
That workshop was “packed,” Berners-Lee said, because life scientists already understand the implications of being able to look at data thats been broken out of the locks imposed by application silos. “They have a huge amount of data,” he said, such as oceans of data about genomes, for example.
Being able to float on that ocean instead of drowning in it is immediately compelling, he said. “People [were] explaining why, in their area, when they started to use Semantic Web ideas, they could do things much more powerfully than they could before, when they realize theyre communicating with people and trading information across the barrier.”
Knocking Down Partitions
Prototype applications already exist. The Massachusetts Institute of Technology, for example, has developed an application called Haystack that enables users to do things such as drag photos straight from an e-mail and drop them into a photo album.
Haystack knocks down the partitions that separate e-mail clients, file systems, calendars, address books, the Web and other repositories so that information can be worked with regardless of its origin.
Such applications will have a big impact on personal information management, Berners-Lee said, as users will be able to do things such as drop their bank statements onto their calendars and have items automatically populate given dates.
Such descriptions sound familiar to anybody whos been following IBMs work with its Information Integrator technology or Oracle Corp.s upcoming Tsunami content management offering, which it plans to roll out at Oracle OpenWorld in San Francisco next week.
Do these offerings overlap the Semantic Web, or are they its first incarnations?
Berners-Lee said typical EAI (enterprise application integration) systems work in a “sort of similar way” to the Semantic Web, in that they entail adapters that convert data to whatever the EAI systems want it to look like.
The big difference, though, is that once youve paid somebody to integrate enterprise applications, the technology provider now has access to the data. But do you?
“Do you have access? Or is it stored in a proprietary system?” Berners-Lee said. “Hopefully in the future, adapters wont be necessary—most products will come Semantically compatible.”
The Semantic Web is going to be like a huge data bus, Berners-Lee said—a back-end bus that spans the planet. Comparing it to Tsunami or Information Integrator is like saying there used to be Hypercards before the Web. “Yes, there were innumerable Hypercard applications before the World Wide Web,” he said. “They just didnt talk the same language.”
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