Despite its marketing overtones, a batch of technologies that make up the Semantic Web is one of the few things that could give Google some serious competition.
Up until last month, Web 3.0's future was in doubt. Wikipedians were divided about the legitimacy of the concept and those skeptical of the term deleted the Web 3.0 entry from the online encyclopedia five separate times during 2006. After this series of near-death experiences, the article was put under protection last October.
The fervor of a few Wikipedians to kill the heir to Web 2.0 -- itself a tiresome term for many these days since becoming trademarked conference -- in its cradle has ebbed since then.
In February, a deletion review for the entry concluded, with the majority of Wikipedia contributors voting to accept the legitimacy of the term.
The watershed moment may well have come last November when New York Times reporter John Markoff legitimized Web 3.0 in an article that described the term as a movement to add meaning and structure to the vast amount of information on the Web. Web 3.0 is closely associated with another trendy term, the Semantic Web.
Semantics is the study of meaning yet as Nova Spivack, CEO and founder of stealth social search startup Radar Networks, concedes, "The Semantic Web doesn't mean anything to a lot of people, ironically."
The same can be said about the term Web 3.0, which as the ring of marketing fluff.
The fact that people are skeptical of such terms doesn't surprise Michael Schmitt, CEO of enterprise search company Siderean. "I would be too," he says. "Remember ten years ago when CORBA [Common Object Request Broker Architecture] was the rave? I was at an industry show and three speakers in a row talked about CORBA, CORBA, CORBA. The fourth speaker got up there and said, 'CORBA, Schmorba, who cares? You've got to make your customers happy, make product, ship product, and at the end of the day, run a business.' The latest buzzword is meaningless."
Yet Schmitt argues that the Semantic web means a great deal in terms of time and money. "These principles are becoming Internet standards that are moving into businesses," he says. "The change is happening not because of any particular label, but because of the three things that matter to CEOs: raise revenues, manage assets, or cut costs."
These Internet standards include the Resource Description Framework (RDF), the Web Ontology Language (OWL), SPARQL (a query language for RDF and the Semantic Web), and other protocols. Though dauntingly obtuse to the non-technical, these specifications spell out a way to make data more valuable by making it more accessible and useful.
These standards, for example, could be used to encode relationships between data records in XML. Knowing how objects in a data set relate to each other allows search queries to be answered by inference, in addition to keyword pattern matching. Thus, someone querying a Star Wars database that supports semantic protocols could search for "Darth Vader's son's sister" and would find documents relating to Princess Leia, despite the absence of that specific phrase in any of the found documents.
Understanding what terms mean and how they relate, in short, makes for better search results. Conversely, the absence of understanding in current search systems explains the general dissatisfaction with search results.
"In the '90s, U2 had that hit song 'I Still Haven't Found What I'm Looking For,'" says Schmitt. "Well, that is now a hit song in enterprises today. Users have search on top of ERP, search on top of data warehouses, search on top of SharePoint, and search on top of internal wikis. None of them work together. Employees may be able to do simple searches but they can't find what they don't know about. They can't find how things are related to each other. That's a problem today."
Add blogs, RSS feeds, the user-generated information on the Internet, and the problem only looks worse. Trite as it has become to bemoan the information explosion and to complain that search falls flat; such sentiment is wide-spread.
You hear it the most from companies trying to sell search software in the shadow of Google. And perhaps with good reason. Spivack claims, "The Semantic Web is one of the few things that could give Google some serious competition."
But Web 3.0 is about more than just search. It's about how meaning can enhance computation in general. "You can start to actually make applications that can understand a pretty wide range of data without having to be specifically programmed to understand that data," says Spivack.
In a reversal of current trends, enterprise companies have blazed a path to the semantic Web ahead of consumer-oriented companies. Oracle in February announced that it had incorporated Siderean's Seamark Navigator system to find more relevant information through semantic search. TopQuadrant has just released a Semantic Web development tool called TopBraid Composer 2.0. Cognition Technologies, working with Everest Technologies, in January, introduced a new litigation support system called EverQuest that uses semantic search. (Attorneys at both companies seem to have missed the fact that this is a relatively well-known trademark in the gaming world.)
But consumer-facing applications are coming soon. Metaweb Technologies recently announced an invitation-only alpha test for Freebase, a structured, searchable, writeable and editable database similar to Wikipedia, but based on semantic technology. And RadarNetworks plans soon to detail its social semantic search platform, which is based on work the company did for DARPA and SRI on a knowledge management research project called CALO (Cognitive Agent that Learns and Organises).
Web 3.0, like it or not, can no longer be denied.
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