It’s Time to Get Behind the Semantic Web

 Have you discovered The Alexandria Project?

Courtesy Erik Wilde, CC Attribution 3.0 Unported License, at years ago I dedicated an issue of Standards Today (then called the Consortium Standards Bulletin) to the future of the Semantic Web. The centerpiece was a very detailed interview (over 5,700 words) with the inventor of both the Web and the Semantic Web, Tim Berners-Lee.
That issue had two foci: the importance of Berners-Lee’s vision of the Semantic Web becoming a reality, and the very substantial impediments to that happening. In my interview, I returned again and again to the latter issue. 
What were those impediments? Back in June of 2005, simply understanding what the Semantic Web was all about was a real problem; proponents found it hard to articulate its operations and uses in a way that people could get their minds around.  More seriously, though, was the amount of effort that implementing the W3C’s core Semantic Web standards would take, conjoined with the absence of clear examples of what kind of rewards would follow for those that took up this burden. In effect, there was not only a chicken and egg issue, but an absence of people interested in buying either the bird or the egg. 

Five years on, the first issue has largely disappeared. People now “get” what the Semantic Web is about, if only because their new smart phone apps show them (for example) how handy it can be to know what types of stores are where, what you can buy at which ones, and what the prices will be when you get there (whether or not Semantic Web standards were actually used to provide that information). 

The profit potential, though, has remained an issue. Back in 2005, the greatest enthusiasm for Semantic Web standards was in areas where the ability to deal with data intelligently was of high value – in life sciences, for example. But the uptake in those areas was not impressive, and in any extent did not spread outwards.
Clearly, the big win would be if the browser providers of the world would throw their support behind the Semantic Web, and I returned to this question over and over in my interview with Berners-Lee. But there was no compelling reason back then why the Googles of the world should go to the effort.
Happily, that’s now changing. Why? Because Semantic Web encoding can allow ads to be targeted much more precisely. Social media companies are also beginning to realize the value that Semantic Web encoding can add to the communities they seek to create.
But that’s still only half the equation, notwithstanding the very considerable power that companies such as Google and Facebook can throw behind the realization of a Semantic Web. Why? Because Google and Facebook users can’t search for what isn’t (yet) there.
The continuing problem can therefore be summed up by reference to two common business phrases: the “network effect” and the “tipping point.”
The concept of the network effect teaches us two things: the first is that the value of the network increases exponentially with the number of nodes (e.g., users) on the network. Unfortunately, the inevitable other lesson is that there’s not much reward to buying the very first telephone.
That’s where the second phrase comes in. Once the tipping point is past – where the investment in effort is outweighed by the resulting benefits – the momentum builds, and builds and builds under its own force.
How far are we from that tipping point? First, the bad news. Here’s an excerpt from my editorial in that June, 2005 issue, updated with Google search data I just pulled down. The discrepancy in numbers is caused by changes in Google methodology during the intervening years, but the proportions tell the tale:
Consider…the results of the following Google searches on three new areas of business opportunity, each of which is enabled by standards that are at roughly the same state of development vis-à-vis their suitability as a basis for productization:
“Web Services”
“Semantic Web”
Search Date
That’s not very hopeful, is it?
But there is good news, too. For over five years now, I’ve maintained a Google Alert on the words “Semantic Web.” And lately, the results of that search have become a whole lot more interesting (see the sample below). Yes, I’ve seen that before, but this time the nature of the hits has grown more hopeful. More often, they relate to real projects, and increasingly they refer to the Semantic Web in the “when” sense rather than the “whether.” Best of all, that “when” is usually assumed to be the present, or at least the near future.
Of course, a Google Alert trend does not a reality make. But here’s the important thing to understand: the Semantic Web as enabled by the W3C’s standards may not be exactly what any given engineer, marketing person or theoretician might have constructed if they had sole control. But they are available; they are coherent; and what they enable can be very, very useful.
The fact is that the Web has become so enormous that the likelihood of adopting any other NextGen set of standards that can make it so dramatically more useful is, in my opinion, very, very low. If we don’t get behind the W3C’s Semantic Web vision now, it may be a very long time indeed before we get another chance to make the Web of the future better than the one we rely upon for more and more every day.




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