Hey everybody! I’ve created this great new game! In this game you stand at a plate and swing a giant club at a golf ball that’s thrown at you by a thrower who stands on a mound. Players in the field (there are ten of them) have big nets and if they catch the ball you are oot (not out). If the ball falls into the field of play you cartwheel down to the three bags that are on the diamond shaped field. When a cartwheeler crosses the home bag, he or she scores a run.
What’s this great game called? I call it Baseball.
OK, I know what you’re going to say. Jim, while that game sounds an awful lot like baseball and shares many of the same attributes, it clearly isn’t baseball. Why don’t you just call it JimmyCartwheelBall?
To which I reply, hey this game is similar in spirit and nature to baseball. And those fuddy duddies who run baseball are too conservative and hide-bound to their rules. They need to be more flexible and open to innovation like me.
And most importantly, no one knows what JimmyCartwheelBall is, but everyone knows what baseball is. By calling my game Baseball I get to ride on all of the hype and popularity attached to it.
Come to think of it, this kind of thing happens an awful lot in technology, too. Often we’ll see some visionary come up with a new idea or technology that gets lots of attention and hype. And when the hype gets big enough, lots of vendors and other companies decide to take some of the concepts and strategies behind this cool new idea but without sticking to the core principles behind the new technology.
We saw this happen in the last couple of years, when any product that basically touched the Web decided to call itself a Web 2.0 product. And we’re seeing it now with the Semantic Web, with more and more products coming out defining themselves as Semantic Web technologies, even though they don’t actually support or use any of the core technologies or standards behind the Semantic Web.
When I recently interviewed Tim Berners-Lee, the man who defined all of the concepts, terms and technologies behind the Semantic Web, he said that in order for a product to really be a Semantic Web product, it must support key standards such as RDF, OWL or SPARQL. To me this is a pretty cut-and-dry rule and if anyone has the right to set the rules for the Semantic Web, it’s Tim Berners-Lee.
But more and more I keep on seeing products and services that call themselves Semantic Web even though they don’t support any of these standards and aren’t even all that much concerned with data, often focusing mainly on user personalization.
When I talk to these companies and developers and point out Berners-Lee’s definition of a Semantic Web technology, they often get pretty defensive, arguing that Semantic Web standards have been slow to come about and are often too inflexible about how they can be used.
And I often understand. In general, standards are one of those things that in the end doesn’t make anyone happy. But they also don’t tend to let anyone change the course of a technology or convert it into a proprietary system.
Berners-Lee definitely understands this danger. In the 1990s he almost saw his creation of the Web itself stolen from him.
When people think of the original browser wars they tend to think of the cutthroat tactics that Microsoft used to topple Netscape. But people often forget that at the height of its power, Netscape was extremely unfriendly to Web standards like HTML and was clearly in the process of creating its own proprietary way of creating Web pages, typically with the attitude that for most people, Navigator was the Web. If Netscape had thrived and become a Google/Microsoft-sized company, who knows what the Web would look like today.
So while I can understand the frustrations of those vendors who want to ride the Semantic Web wave but don’t want to have to follow all of the strict rules, I just have to say, tough. Tim Berners-Lee created the Semantic Web and he and the World Wide Web Consortium get to set the rules. If you don’t like those rules, feel free to call your products and technologies something else besides the Semantic Web.
Because doing anything else is really just playing games.