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!