The Standards Blog

Whither Web 2.0?

Semantic & NextGen Web

Over at Courante.com, there's a thread debating whether the Web 2.0 will be an anarchic mix of individualized, patched together next steps, or the orderly Semantic Web envisioned by Tim Berners-Lee. Well, let's think about that.

Over at Courant.com, Alan Wexelblat has been mulling over a Bob Cringely column in a post called Grokster Decision Leads to Web 2.0? Alan summarrizes Cringely and responds (in part) as follows:

The true successor, says Bob, will be an API-based service built from pieces offered by different organizations, so different from Grokster that there won't even be an entity to which the intention standard could be applied. Erm, maybe. Cringely leaves out a lot of steps in this chain, one of which is that the semantic Web project is in its fourth year and shows no signs of disturbing the huge growth of the WWW as we know it. There's every reason to believe that the semantic Web will remain a pipe dream for many years to come, and file-sharing will likely continue to evolve in the meantime.

In a comment, jtw (a former W3C Semantic Web team member) has a more hopeful view, concluding, "So I would argue that, in fact, the semantic web as seen by W3C is indeed well on its way. It just hasn't made that jump outside of its initial domains yet. But wait til the first real semantic web browser hits..."

But will there be a Semantic Web browser (or, more responsively to jtw, will it lead the charge of conversion, or will it take advantage of the conversion after the geeks have led the way?

I'm of the opinion that it will be somewhere in the middle. Somebody (or somebodies) will inevitably see the SemWeb as an opportunity to either chip away at the Big Browser Boys' market share, or, alternatively, tweak their collective tails -- just because then can (presumably using, say, FireFox), and the Big Boys will respond not to the opportunity, but defensively.

You can read Tim Berners-Lee's most recent opinions on this subject (which can briefly be summarized as "been there, done this before; just be patient) in the June CSB: The Semantic Web: an Interview with Tim Berners-Lee. My own, somewhat more subdued opinions are in the Editorial from the same issue: Web of Dreams. In brief, I'm more in agreement with jtw (his Semantic browser observation aside) and Tim than Alan, but still believe that we have a few years to wait before the SemWeb wagon really gets rolling.

Assuming that it's still to early to call it all a question of "when" and not "whether,", I think that one of the big "ifs" relates to whether the ad hoc, neural, viral world of tagging and other shortcuts that people will think up will absorb all of the energy, which is closer to Cringely's point (which, you may recall, is where this all began). Perhaps the appetite for more rigid and demanding Semantic approaches will be limited to highly structured, highly disciplined areas like health sciences, leading to two parallel Webs: a stuffy, precise, and more reliable Semantic one, and an anarchic, freewheeling, morphing one that rollicks along, trying out all kinds of interesting experiments that may (or may not) eventually settle into something we can't even imagine at this point in time. Personally, that sounds like not such a bad future to me.

Either way, we'll see. But best not to be in too much of a hurry to find out.