The Semantic Web’s biggest problem

Paul Miller has a new column at ZDNet that’s all about the Semantic Web — or Web3.0, as some like to call it — and he’s got a post up about an interview he did with the Father of the Web, Sir Tim Berners-Lee, in which Sir Tim says that all of the various building blocks required for the Semantic Web to start functioning are there, and all that’s needed is for some people to start putting those blocks together. There’s no question that Sir Tim is right, from a technical point of view. But what’s really missing is magic — something that is going to pull people into it.

Let’s face it — the biggest problem with the Semantic Web is that it’s as boring as dry toast. It’s all about plumbing and widgets and data standards, all of which have names like FOAF and TOTP and SIOC and whatnot. It’s right off the dork-o-meter. The Lone Gunmen from The X-Files would have a hard time getting interested in this stuff, let alone anyone who isn’t married to their slide rule or their pocket protector. The things that the Semantic Web would make possible are fascinating and in some cases very appealing — it’s just getting there that’s the hard part.

A related problem, I would argue, is that not enough people even know what the word “semantic” means. I’m sure lots of people hear the term and either have to go look it up, or are left wondering what the hell people are talking about. And even when you know that the word refers to meaning as represented in language, or knowledge as represented in data, you’re still not much further ahead — it’s meta-data, or meta-knowledge. Not exactly warm and fuzzy, or easy to explain over a beer (or ten).

HTML and Web protocols are pretty boring too, but eventually they were able to do something that made people sit up and notice. What are those things going to be for the Semantic Web? I haven’t got a clue, but I’m glad Sir Tim and others are hard at work on it. For what it’s worth, I had a nice chat last year with the Father of the Web (who told me if someone other than the Queen refers to him as Sir, they have to buy a round of drinks), and we talked about the Semantic Web too.

A chat with the Father of the Web

(cross-posted from my Globe and Mail blog)

Sir Tim Berners-Lee doesn’t sound like a legend on the phone. He sounds like a friendly, slightly absent-minded scientist — which isn’t surprising, since that’s pretty much what he was before he invented the World Wide Web in 1990 while working at a particle-physics research lab in Switzerland, and along the way became a legend. He says he has a rule that anyone who calls him Sir (he received a knighthood from the Queen in 2004) “has to buy a round of drinks.”

In a phone call from Banff, where he was taking part in the 16th annual International World Wide Web Conference, Sir Tim talked about what he sees as the future of the “semantic Web” — in which not just websites will be connected together, but all kinds of data everywhere will be interconnected — and also some of the things he thinks could put the future of the Web at risk, such as the potential for large telecom companies to try and control the flow of data.

Globe: What sorts of things are you talking about at the conference?

TBL: “There are a number of trends happening on the Web. For example, there are pragmatic trends, such as the fact that we’re starting to see people using all kinds of small, portable devices to access the Web, as well as now huge screens. So the question is how do you make a web site that takes advantage of the big screen, when you’re planning a trip or whatever, but still works on a small screen when you’re checking your flights. The Web is also getting more into developing countries, so the number of people and the number of cultures on the Web is exploding… so that’s exciting. And then there’s the work we’re doing on the idea of the semantic Web.”

Globe: What do you mean when you use the term “semantic Web?”

: “It’s a way of taking the data that is in lots and lots of different systems and connecting it together — for example, in a company or a database — and not just connecting it together, but realizing that it’s part of a community, that there are partners and suppliers and customers who all want to see and use this data in different ways. There’s a lot of excitement in the life sciences about doing this, where there are scientists looking for drugs and so on, and they have huge amounts of different sources of data. They’re looking for creative solutions to medical problems, but not everyone who is working on the problem has access to the right data.”

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