semantic web

The battle for the semantic web

The stakes: The emergence of the workable metadata representation and data interchange technology will determine the future of the web. As the semantic web is built piece by piece over the next ten years everything will be up for grabs.

For example...

And that's just the current lot. What happens when all the newbies show up?

The story: The thing is - the semantic web is taking it's good old time to come about. You would think that with everything at stake there would be a near instantanious glut of innovation. But as it turns out, the research community responsible for birthing the semantic web has failed thus far to fit their vision through the innovation pipe and now others are coming forward to dismantle it and shove it through piece by piece. This has of course created a very real but rather congenial rift within the community of web-technologists working on metadata represenation and data interchange on the web - the old RDF vs. XML technology pissing match.

RDF: RDF came straight out of the genius brains of the guy who invented the web in the first place, Tim Berners Lee. With the financing of corporate research dollars and incubation by the most stately of computer science facilities the original semantic web proponents are pursuing a fittingly grandiose vision. Too be honest I don't entirely understand how the technology they are developing is supposed to work but I do know that their approach is predicated on an entirely new way to internally represent and retrieve data that is quite complicated to implement. Anyone in the business of building web-apps would immediately tell you that RDF Store technology will be a hard sell to web-application developers who will likely favor their simpler more tried and true approaches. But no-bother say the RDF crew -'we invented the web once, we'll do it twice' and then continue on hacking their RDF prototypes together.

While I will be the first to admit these MIT CS researchers are much more competant engineers than I am, this argument doesn't sit well with me. The web was new technology born on the frontier of the internet and helped catalyzed it's tremendous inception. But it's a different landscape today. As I see it the RDF semantic web has a trillion dollar legacy problem that it has not come to grips with.

1990: When the WWW was created it offered critical and unique functionality in a new and creative environment. It was ingenious, relatively simple to implement, and the only game in town (well, except for Gopher). Down the mountain the little snowball went - JPL puts up pictures of asteroids, Compuserve signs up some customers, Netscape IPO's, Ebay revolutionizes junk sales, Google monetizes search and voilà the web is born.

2006: The web works. Billions have been invested in platform technologies such as LAMP, JSP, .NET and wells of innovation are being tapped more quickly than ever. Meanwhile up atop the hill Universities and far sighted corporate research vehicles have spent eight years perfecting their new snowball but are apparently stuck waiting for others to push it down the hill for them. But it simply isn't happening yet. Non RDF structured data interchange technologies for consumers on the web appear to steadily advance at the speed at which Dave Winers beard grows while simple-to-implement simple-to-understand web-service data interchange techniques (REST) solve the immediate 'enterprise' needs. This leaves no immediate critical functionality path for RDF technologies to toboggan down.

Hence, after eight years of RDF work, nobody on SIMILE's public mailinglist could point me towards a single real-world application of RDF semantic web technologies used for data representation and interchange across the web.

XML: In the abscence of workable RDF technologies other innovators are marching steadily towards working solutions for metadata representation and data interchange. The vision of the semantic web is now marching free from it's body as a floating apparition of hype and speculation. Implementable standards, running code, and real world successes are fueling these innovators. And they are making progress.

If there are two different camps of technologists each tackling the same problem set working towards a shared vision then why are they working on two different sets of competing technologies?: Beats me.

So what happens?: It hasn't happened yet. It's happening right now. Thats the fun part!

RDF Semantic web research isn't working

It has been eight years since Tim Berners-Lee threw up his hands and said "it's all crap, lets do it over" and set off to create the semantic web. We've got very little to show for it so far. I firmly believe the work semantic web technologists are pursuing is important and the concepts will inevitably be realized and I very much want to see this research become viable. But things are not moving fast enough and the tack semantic researchers are taking simply isn't working.

Semantic web technology is marred in a chicken/egg paradox. The technologies are generally not useful unless they are adopted and implemented on a large scale and people are not willing to invest in implementing them unless they are useful. This is exacerbated by the fact that there are very high technology, business, and social barriers to implementing the semantic web.

  1. Technology Barriers: Even today, implementing RDF parsers is complex and difficult and the best tools are hopelessly slow. These are the most basic and fundamental tools the semantic web needs to operate and we still can't get them to work.
  2. Business Barriers: If the semantic web is implemented the current web industry will be intensely disrupted. Ebay, Google, Amazon - virtually all mainstays of web-business will have to significantly adjust their business and technology models. Because of this web-businesses are trepidacious when it comes to investing, adopting, and promoting the semantic web.
  3. Social Barriers: The way in which we use the web will be greatly changed when the semantic web is implemented. Just look at the current state of usability in feed aggregation for a hint of what will be required for users to adopt the newly realized functionality.

These barriers are far from insurmountable, but the tack the current researchers are taking simply won't cut it.

  1. Researchers are not finding adequate use-cases for implementing compelling functionality, instead they are creating widgets. There are a great many of organizations out there with real-world needs that would be greatly served by implemented semantic web-technology but researchers are for the most part turning a blind eye and working in a vacuum.
  2. Researchers are not picking their battles. Instead they are building generic tools with little real world applicability.
  3. Researchers are not keeping up with the web and web-publishing software. It seems that in an effort to remain neutral towards the current web-publishing industry semantic web researches choose to build their own tools in isolation. This means that anyone wanting to reuse these tools in a real world application has to re-implement them within their own web-publishing environment which due to the high technology barriers simply isn't happening. This is a shame because it would actually save the researchers time, effort, and money if they simply implemented their tools within web-publishing environments such as Drupal and it would allow adopters to implement the tools at zero cost.
  4. Researchers are not moving at the pace the web is currently developing, instead they are attempting to leap-frog it. A good example of this is the Structured Blogging and Microformats initiatives. Why are semantic web researchers not collaborating with the teams pursuing these projects?

So what can we do about it?

  1. Researchers need to stop thinking of themselves as researchers and start thinking of themselves as implementors.
  2. Research institutes need to join forces with emerging businesses looking to adopt semantic technology. This breaks the current model of business / research institute collaboration since startups do not have money to contribute to fund research, but tough noogies.
  3. Researchers need to build their tools in real-world development environments, i.e. as modules for LAMP web-publishing tools such as Drupal and Wordpress. They need to find more organizational partners to deploy their solutions. They need to do something other than build widgets.
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