If the current Web is a marinara, then the Semantic Web is a much richer cream sauce. Don't worry if you haven't heard of it yet; you're about to get a crash course. To start, combine a serving of data integration, a heap of developing technology and a helping of philosophy for flavor. Mix well. The future of the Web is starting to look very tasty.
This probably makes you wonder, "Just what is the Semantic Web?" That's the same question we asked Eric Miller, Semantic Web Activity Lead for the Web standards body World Wide Web Consortium (W3C). "The Semantic Web is an extension of the current Web," says Miller. "The specific focus of this is to provide a means where information is given a well-defined meaning, better enabling machines to process, manipulate and integrate this information into additional services so that humans can better take advantage of these things."
Sound a little vague to you? Then you're on the right track. The key to not being confused by all this is to take a wide view. Just as you would have been hard-pressed to describe the World Wide Web as it is today back in 1990, it's hard to describe today what the Semantic Web will be like in five or 10 years-but the potential is huge, and it will make a difference in the way you conduct business.
Miller emphasizes that the concepts behind the Semantic Web aren't new. Ideas about describing and integrating data and placing a premium on their relationships have been around since Aristotle. Tim Berners-Lee, known as the Father of the Web, even included the foundations for the Semantic Web in his original proposal for the Web in 1989. We're just now getting around to the implementation part.
"The Semantic Web is all about data integration-much richer ways of organizing things based on contextual relationships," says Miller. The best places to see this in action right now are at MusicBrainz.org and Epinions.com. MusicBrainz is a collaborative metadatabase site that deals with music tracks. Epinions logs products of all types and integrates pricing, catalogs and consumer opinions. When brought together in a meaningful way, these small bits of information form a greater whole.
It takes some forward thinking and imagination to start seeing how this approach could make your business stronger. "What we're trying to do is provide the infrastructure that makes this stuff possible at the Web level and [lets it] trickle back down into businesses," says Miller. For instance, if you were able to integrate your company's information on a customer with data from partner companies or information collected from various locations on the Web, you'd gain a much better understanding of the customer and could better serve his or her needs. Bingo: better business. Remember, this is just one possible example pulled from a wide-open horizon.
For tech entrepreneurs, the Semantic Web is a vast and tempting new frontier. While the W3C is helping to shepherd enabling standards along, it is really the work of independent organizations and companies that will provide much of the fuel. Like the original Web, it's very much a grass-roots movement. Growing businesses should look for opportunities to create new technologies and services based on Semantic Web concepts.
Let's make sure we have a good grasp on this. What is the Semantic Web? Miller says, "It's inclusive of all sorts of things, not just documents," says Miller. "We're taking ideas that have worked on the Web and extending them into the real world and beginning to build a richer network of information. Once we do this, a whole new set of services would take place and are taking place." From here on out, there will be many opportunities for entrepreneurs to take this and run with it, both as developers and as users.
The true story of the Semantic Web will be written as it becomes a global evolution. And not just in a geographic sense. Just as the Web has worked its way inside businesses in the form of intranets, we can expect the Semantic Web to do the same, enhancing productivity and saving time and money. Visit the W3C online at W3.org for the history, latest information and detailed developments.
For reprints and licensing questions, click here.