The Birth of the Scheduled Web

If 2010 was the year of the Real-Time Web, then 2011 is going to be the year that it evolves into the Scheduled Web.

The Real-Time Web happens in the now: it is spontaneous, overwhelming, and disorganized. Things just happen unpredictably and nobody really knows what to expect or what will happen when.

The Real-Time Web is something of a misnomer, however, because usually it’s not real-time at all –  it’s after-the-fact. Most people find out about things that happened on the Real-Time Web after they happen, or, if they are lucky, when they happen. There is no way to know what is going to happen before it happens; there is no way to prepare or ensure that you will be online when something happens on the Real-Time Web. It’s entirely hit-or-miss.

If we are going to truly realize the Real-Time Web vision, then “time” needs to be the primary focus. So far, the Real-Time Web has mainly just been about simultaneity and speed – for example how quickly people on Twitter can respond to an event in the real world such as the Haiti Earthquake or the Oscars.

This obsession with the present is a sign of the times, but it is also a form of collective myopia — the Real-Time Web really doesn’t include the past or the future – it exists in a kind of perpetual now. To put the “time” into Real-Time, we need to  provide a way to see the past, present and the future Real-Time Web at once.  For example, we need a way to search and browse the past, present, and the future of a stream – what happened, what is happening, and what is scheduled to happen in the future. And this is where what I am calling The Scheduled Web comes in. It’s the next step for the Real-Time Web.

Defining the Scheduled Web

With the Scheduled Web things will start to make sense again. There will be a return of some semblance of order thanks to schedule metadata that enables people (and software) to find out about upcoming things on the Web that matter to them, before they happen, and to find out about past things that matter, after they happen.

The Scheduled Web is a Web that has a schedule, or many schedules, which exist in some commonly accessible, open format. These schedules should be searchable, linkable, shareable, interactive, collaborative, and discoverable. And they should be able to apply to anything — not just video, but any kind of content or activity online.

Why is this needed? Well consider this example. Imagine if there was no TV Guide on digital television. How would you navigate the constantly changing programming of more than 1000 digital TV channels without an interactive program guide (IPG)? It would be extremely difficult to find shows in a timely manner. According to clickstream data from television set-top boxes, about 10% of all time spent watching TV is spent in the IPG environment. And that is not even counting additional time-spent in on-demand guidance interfaces on DVRs. The point here is that guidance is key when you have lots of streams of content happening over time.

Now extend this same problem to the Web where there are literally millions of things happening every minute. These streams of content are not just limited to video. There are myriad types of real-time streams, everything from sales, auctions, and chats, to product launches, games, and audio, to streams of RSS feeds, Web pages appearing on Web sites, photos appearing on photo sites, software releases, announcements, etc.

Without some kind of guidance it is simply impossible to navigate the firehose of live online content streams on the Web efficiently. This firehose is too much to cope with in the present moment, let alone the past, or the future. This is what the Scheduled Web will solve.

By giving people a way to see into the past, present and future of the Real-Time Web, the Scheduled Web will enable the REAL Real-Time Web to be truly actualized. People will be able to know and plan in advance to actually be online when live events they care about take place.

Instead of missing that cool live Web concert or that auction for your favorite brand of shoes, simply because you didn’t know about it beforehand, you will be able to discover it in advance, RSVP, and get reminded before it starts — so you can be there and participate in the experience, right as it happens.

We are just beginning to see the emergence of the Scheduled Web. Two new examples of startups that are at work in the space are Clicker and Live Matrix.

  • Clicker, a site that mainly provides on-demand video clips of past TV episodes, this week launched a schedule for live video streams on the Web.
  • Live Matrix (my new startup), is soon to launch a schedule for all types of online events, not just video streams.

Some people have compared Live Matrix to Clicker, however this is not a wholly accurate comparison. We have very different, although  intersecting, goals.

While Clicker is an interesting play to compete with TV Guide and companies like Hulu, Live Matrix is creating a broader index of all the events taking place across the Scheduled Web, not just video/TV content events.

The insight behind Live Matrix is that there is much more to the Scheduled Web than video and TV content. The Web is not just about TV or video – it is about many different kinds of content.

Applying a TV metaphor to the Web is like trying to apply a print metaphor to tablet computing. While print has many positive qualities, tablet devices should not be limited just to text should they? Likewise, while the TV metaphor has advantages, it doesn’t make sense to limit the experience of time or scheduled content on the Web just to video.

With this in mind, while Live Matrix includes scheduled live video streams, we view video and TV type content as just one of many different types of scheduled Web content that matter.

For example, Live Matrix also includes online shopping events like sales and auctions, which comprise an enormous segment of the Scheduled Web. As an illustration eBay alone lists around 10 million scheduled auctions and sales each day! Live Matrix also includes scheduling metadata for many other kinds of content — online games, online chats, online audio, and more.

Live Matrix is building something quite a bit broader than current narrow conceptions of the Real-Time Web, or the narrow metaphor of TV on the Web. We are creating a way to navigate and search the full time dimension of the Web, we are building the schedule of the Web.

This will become a valuable, even essential, layer of metadata that just about every application, service and Internet surfer will make use of every day. Because after all, life happens in time and so does the Web. By adding metadata about time to the Web, Live Matrix will help make the Web – and particularly the Real-Time Web – easier to navigate.

Online vs. Offline Events

One of the key rules of Live Matrix is that, to be included in our schedule, an event must be consumable on-line. This means that it must be possible to access and participate in an event on an Internet-connected device.

Live Matrix is not a schedule of offline events or events that cannot be consumed or participated in using Internet-connected devices.

We made this rule because we believe that in the near-future almost everything interesting will, in fact, be consumable online, even if it has an offline component to it. We want to focus attention on those events which can be consumed on Internet-connected devices, so that if you have a connected device you can know that everything in Live Matrix can be accessed directly on your device. You don’t have to get in your car and drive to some physical venue, you don’t have to leave the Internet and go to some other device and network (like a TV and cable network).

Note the shift in emphasis here: We believe that the center of an increasing number of events is going to be online, and the offline world is going to increasingly become more peripheral.

For example, if a retail sale generates more revenues from online purchases than physical in-store purchases, the center of the sale is really on-line and the physical store becomes peripheral. Similarly, if a live concert has 30,000 audience members in a physical stadium but 10,000,000 people attending it online, the bulk of the concert is in fact online. This is already starting to happen.

For example, the recent Youtube concert featuring U2 had 10 million live streams – that’s up to 10 million live people in the audience at one time, making it possibly the largest online concert in history; it’s certainly a lot more people than any physical stadium could accommodate. Similarly, online venues like Second Life and World of Warcraft can accommodate thousands of players interacting in the same virtual spaces – not only do these spaces not even have a physical analogue (they exist only in virtual space), but there are no physical spaces that could accommodate such large games. These are examples of how online events may start to eclipse offline events.

I’m not saying this trend is good or bad; I’m simply stating a fact of our changing participatory culture. The world is going increasingly online and with this shift the center of our lives is going increasingly online, as well. It is this insight that gave my co-founder, Sanjay Reddy, and I, the inspiration to start Live Matrix, and to begin building what we hope will be the backbone of the Scheduled Web.

Eliminating the Need for Search – Help Engines

We are so focused on how to improve present-day search engines. But that is a kind of mental myopia. In fact, a more interesting and fruitful question is why do people search at all? What are they trying to accomplish? And is there a better way to help them accomplish that than search?

Instead of finding more ways to get people to search, or ways to make existing search experiences better, I am starting to think about how to reduce or  eliminate the need to search — by replacing it with something better.

People don’t search because they like to. They search because there is something else they are trying to accomplish. So search is in fact really just an inconvenience — a means-to-an-end that we have to struggle through to do in order to get to what we actually really want to accomplish. Search is “in the way” between intention and action. It’s an intermediary stepping stone. And perhaps there’s a better way to get to where we want to go than searching.

Searching is a boring and menial activity. Think about it. We have to cleverly invent and try pseudo-natural-language queries that don’t really express what we mean. We try many different queries until we get results that approximate what we’re looking for. We click on a bunch of results and check them out. Then we search some more. And then some more clicking. Then more searching. And we never know whether we’ve been comprehensive, or have even entered the best query, or looked at all the things we should have looked at to be thorough. It’s extremely hit or miss. And takes up a lot of time and energy. There must be a better way! And there is.

Instead of making search more bloated and more of a focus, the goal should really be get search out of the way.  To minimize the need to search, and to make any search that is necessary as productive as possible. The goal should be to get consumers to what they really want with the least amount of searching and the least amount of effort, with the greatest amount of confidence that the results are accurate and comprehensive. To satisfy these constraints one must NOT simply build a slightly better search engine!

Instead, I think there’s something else we need to be building entirely. I don’t know what to call it yet. It’s not a search engine. So what is it?

Bing’s term “decision engine” is pretty good, pretty close to it. But what they’ve actually released so far still looks and feels a lot like a search engine. But at least it’s pushing the envelope beyond what Google has done with search. And this is good for competition and for consumers. Bing is heading in the right direction by leveraging natural language, semantics, and structured data. But there’s still a long way to go to really move the needle significantly beyond Google to be able to win dominant market share.

For the last decade the search wars have been fought in battles around index size, keyword search relevancy, and ad targeting — But I think the new battle is going to be fought around semantic understanding, intelligent answers, personal assistance, and commerce affiliate fees. What’s coming next after search engines are things that function more like assistants and brokers.

Wolfram Alpha is an example of one approach to this trend. The folks at Wolfram Alpha call their system a “computational knowledge engine” because they use a knowledge base to compute and synthesize answers to various questions. It does a lot of the heavy lifting for you, going through various data, computing and comparing, and then synthesizes a concise answer.

There are also other approaches to getting or generating answers for people — for example, by doing what Aardvark does: referring people to experts who can answer their questions or help them. Expert referral, or expertise search, helps reduce the need for networking and makes networking more efficient. It also reduces the need for searching online — instead of searching for an answer, just ask an expert.

There’s also the semantic search approach — perhaps exemplified by my own Twine “T2” project — which basically aims to improve the precision of search by helping you get to the right results faster, with less irrelevant noise. Other consumer facing semantic search projects of interest are Goby and Powerset (now part of Bing).

Still another approach is that of Siri, which is making an intelligent “task completion assistant” that helps you search for and accomplish things like “book a romantic dinner and a movie tonight.” In some ways Siri is a “do engine” not a “search engine.” Siri uses artificial intelligence to help you do things more productively. This is quite needed and will potentially be quite useful, especially on mobile devices.

All of these approaches and projects are promising. But I think the next frontier — the thing that is beyond search and removes the need for search is still a bit different — it is going to combine elements of all of the above approaches, with something new.

For a lack of a better term, I call this a “help engine.” A help engine proactively helps you with various kinds of needs, decisions, tasks, or goals you want to accomplish. And it does this by helping with an increasingly common and vexing problem: choice overload.

The biggest problem is that we have too many choices, and the number of choices keeps increasing exponentially. The Web and globalization have increased the number of choices that are within range for all of us, but the result has been overload. To make a good, well-researched, confident choice now requires a lot of investigation, comparisons, and thinking. It’s just becoming too much work.

For example, choosing a location for an event, or planning a trip itinerary, or choosing what medicine to take, deciding what product to buy, who to hire, what company to work for, what stock to invest in, what website to read about some topic. These kinds of activities require a lot of research, evaluations of choices, comparisons, testing, and thinking. A lot of clicking. And they also happen to be some of the most monetizable activities for search engines. Existing search engines like Google that make money from getting you to click on their pages as much as possible have no financial incentive to solve this problem — if they actually worked so well that consumers clicked less they would make less money.

I think the solution to what’s after search — the “next Google” so to speak — will come from outside the traditional search engine companies. Or at least it will be an upstart project within one of them that surprises everyone and doesn’t come from the main search teams within them. It’s really such a new direction from traditional search and will require some real thinking outside of the box.

I’ve been thinking about this a lot over the last month or two. It’s fascinating. What if there was a better way to help consumers with the activities they are trying to accomplish than search? If it existed it could actually replace search. It’s a Google-sized opportunity, and one which I don’t think Google is going to solve.

Search engines cause choice overload. That wasn’t the goal, but it is what has happened over time due to the growth of the Web and the explosion of choices that are visible, available, and accessible to us via the Web.

What we need now is not a search engine — it’s something that solves the problem created by search engines. For this reason, the next Google probably won’t be Google or a search engine at all.

I’m not advocating for artificial intelligence or anything that tries to replicate human reasoning, human understanding, or human knowledge. I’m actually thinking about something simpler. I think that it’s possible to use computers to provide consumers with extremely good, automated decision-support over the Web and the kinds of activities they engage in. Search engines are almost the most primitive form of decision support imaginable. I think we can do a lot better. And we have to.

People use search engines as a form of decision-support, because they don’t have a better alternative. And there are many places where decision support and help are needed: Shopping, travel, health, careers, personal finance, home improvement, and even across entertainment and lifestyle categories.

What if there was a way to provide this kind of personal decision-support — this kind of help — with an entirely different user experience than search engines provide today? I think there is. And I’ve got some specific thoughts about this, but it’s too early to explain them; they’re still forming.

I keep finding myself thinking about this topic, and arriving at big insights in the process. All of the different things I’ve worked on in the past seem to connect to this idea in interesting ways. Perhaps it’s going to be one of the main themes I’ll be working on and thinking about for this coming decade.

Twine "T2" – Latest Demo Screenshots (Internal Alpha)

This is a series of screenshots that demo the latest build of the consumer experience and developer tools for Twine.com’s “T2” semantic search product. This is still in internal alpha — not released to public yet.

The Road to Semantic Search — The Twine.com Story

This is the story of Twine.com — our early research (with never before seen screenshots of our early semantic desktop work), and our evolution from Twine 1.0 towards Twine 2.0 (“T2”) which is focused on semantic search.

What's After the Real Time Web?

In typical Web-industry style we’re all focused minutely on the leading trend-of-the-year, the real-time Web. But in this obsession we have become a bit myopic. The real-time Web, or what some of us call “The Stream,” is not an end in itself, it’s a means to an end. So what will it enable, where is it headed, and what’s it going to look like when we look back at this trend in 10 or 20 years?

In the next 10 years, The Stream is going to go through two big phases, focused on two problems, as it evolves:

  1. Web Attention Deficit Disorder. The first problem with the real-time Web that is becoming increasingly evident is that it has a bad case of ADD. There is so much information streaming in from so many places at once that it’s simply impossible to focus on anything for very long, and a lot of important things are missed in the chaos. The first generation of tools for the Stream are going to need to address this problem.
  2. Web Intention Deficit Disorder. The second problem with the real-time Web will emerge after we have made some real headway in solving Web attention deficit disorder. This second problem is about how to get large numbers of people to focus their intention not just their attention. It’s not just difficult to get people to notice something, it’s even more difficult to get them to do something. Attending to something is simply noticing it. Intending to do something is actually taking action, expending some energy or effort to do something. Intending is a lot more expensive, cognitively speaking, than merely attending. The power of collective intention is literally what changes the world, but we don’t have the tools to direct it yet.

The Stream is not the only big trend taking place right now. In fact, it’s just a strand that is being braided together with several other trends, as part of a larger pattern. Here are some of the other strands I’m tracking:

  • Messaging. The real-time Web aka The Stream is really about messaging in essence. It’s a subset of the global trend towards building a better messaging layer for the Web. Multiple forms of messaging are emerging, from the publish-and-subscribe nature of Twitter and RSS, to things like Google Wave, Pubsubhubub, and broadcast style messaging or multicasting via screencast, conferencing and media streaming and events in virtual worlds. The effect of these tools is that the speed and interactivity of the Web are increasing — the Web is getting faster. Information spreads more virally, more rapidly — in other words, “memes” (which we can think of as collective thoughts) are getting more sophisticated and gaining more mobility.
  • Semantics. The Web becomes more like a database. The resolution of search, ad targeting, and publishing increases. In other words, it’s a higher-resolution Web. Search will be able to target not just keywords but specific meaning. For example, you will be able to search precisely for products or content that meet certain constraints. Multiple approaches from natural language search to the metadata of the Semantic Web will contribute to increased semantic understanding and representation of the Web.
  • Attenuation. As information moves faster, and our networks get broader, information overload gets worse in multiple dimensions. This creates a need for tools to help people filter the firehose. Filtering in its essence is a process of attenuation — a way to focus attention more efficiently on signal versus noise. Broadly speaking there are many forms of filtering from automated filtering, to social filtering, to personalization, but they all come down to helping someone focus their finite attention more efficiently on the things they care about most.
  • The WebOS.  As cloud computing resources, mashups, open linked data, and open API’s proliferate, a new level of aggregator is emerging. These aggregators may focus on one of these areas or may cut across them. Ultimately they are the beginning of true cross-service WebOS’s. I predict this is going to be a big trend in the future — for example instead of writing Web apps directly to various data and API’s in dozens of places, just write to a single WebOS aggregator that acts as middleware between your app and all these choices. It’s much less complicated for developers. The winning WebOS is probably not going to come from Google, Microsoft or Amazon — rather it will probably come from someone neutral, with the best interests of developers as the primary goal.
  • Decentralization. As the semantics of the Web get richer, and the WebOS really emerges it will finally be possible for applications to leverage federated, Web-scale computing. This is when intelligent agents will actually emerge and be practical. By this time the Web will be far too vast and complex and rapidly changing for any centralized system to index and search it. Only massively federated swarms of intelligent agents, or extremely dynamic distributed computing tools, that can spread around the Web as they work, will be able to keep up with the Web.
  • Socialization. Our interactions and activities on the Web are increasingly socially networked, whether individual, group or involving large networks or crowds. Content is both shared and discovered socially through our circles of friends and contacts. In addition, new technologies like Google Social Search enable search results to be filtered by social distance or social relevancy. In other words, things that people you follow like get higher visibility in your search results. Socialization is a trend towards making previously non-social activities more social, and towards making already-social activities more efficient and broader. Ultimately this process leads to wider collaboration and higher levels of collective intelligence.
  • Augmentation. Increasingly we will see a trend towards augmenting things with other things. For example, augmenting a Web page or data set with links or notes from another Web page or data set. Or augmenting reality by superimposing video and data onto a live video image on a mobile phone. Or augmenting our bodies with direct connections to computers and the Web.

If these are all strands in a larger pattern, then what is the megatrend they are all contributing to? I think ultimately it’s collective intelligence — not just of humans, but also our computing systems, working in concert.

Collective Intelligence

I think that these trends are all combining, and going real-time. Effectively what we’re seeing is the evolution of a global collective mind, a theme I keep coming back to again and again. This collective mind is not just comprised of humans, but also of software and computers and information, all interlinked into one unimaginably complex system: A system that senses the universe and itself, that thinks, feels, and does things, on a planetary scale. And as humanity spreads out around the solar system and eventually the galaxy, this system will spread as well, and at times splinter and reproduce.

But that’s in the very distant future still. In the nearer term — the next 100 years or so — we’re going to go through some enormous changes. As the world becomes increasingly networked and social the way collective thinking and decision making take place is going to be radically restructured.

Social Evolution

Existing and established social, political and economic structures are going to either evolve or be overturned and replaced. Everything from the way news and entertainment are created and consumed, to how companies, cities and governments are managed will change radically. Top-down beaurocratic control systems are simply not going to be able to keep up or function effectively in this new world of distributed, omnidirectional collective intelligence.

Physical Evolution

As humanity and our Web of information and computatoins begins to function as a single organism, we will evolve literally, into a new species: Whatever is after the homo sapien. The environment we will live in will be a constantly changing sea of collective thought in which nothing and nobody will be isolated. We will be more interdependent than ever before. Interdependence leads to symbiosis, and eventually to the loss of generality and increasing specialization. As each of us is able to draw on the collective mind, the global brain, there may be less pressure on us to do things on our own that used to be solitary. What changes to our bodies, minds and organizations may result from these selective evolutionary pressures? I think we’ll see several, over multi-thousand year timescales, or perhaps faster if we start to genetically engineer ourselves:

  • Individual brains will get less good at things like memorization and recall, calculation, reasoning, and long-term planning and action.
  • Individual brains will get better at multi-tasking, information filtering, trend detection, and social communication. The parts of the nervous system involved in processing live information will increase disproportionately to other parts.
  • Our bodies may actually improve in certain areas. We will become more, not less, mobile, as computation and the Web become increasingly embedded into our surroundings, and into augmented views of our environments. This may cause our bodies to get into better health and shape since we will be less sedentary, less at our desks, less in front of TV’s. We’ll be moving around in the world, connected to everything and everyone no matter where we are. Physical strength will probably decrease overall as we will need to do less manual labor of any kind.

These are just some of the changes that are likely to occur as a result of the things we’re working on today. The Web and the emerging Real-Time Web are just a prelude of things to come.

The Future of the Web: BBC Interview

The BBC World Service’s Business Daily show interviewed the CTO of Xerox and me, about the future of the Web, printing, newspapers, search, personalization, the real-time Web. Listen to the audio stream here. I hear this will only be online at this location for 6 more days. If anyone finds it again after that let me know and I’ll update the link here.

The Next Generation of Web Search — Search 3.0

The next generation of Web search is coming sooner than expected. And with it we will see several shifts in the way people search, and the way major search engines provide search functionality to consumers.

Web 1.0, the first decade of the Web (1989 – 1999), was characterized by a distinctly desktop-like search paradigm. The overriding idea was that the Web is a collection of documents, not unlike the folder tree on the desktop, that must be searched and ranked hierarchically. Relevancy was considered to be how closely a document matched a given query string.

Web 2.0, the second decade of the Web (1999 – 2009), ushered in the beginnings of a shift towards social search. In particular blogging tools, social bookmarking tools, social networks, social media sites, and microblogging services began to organize the Web around people and their relationships. This added the beginnings of a primitive “web of trust” to the search repertoire, enabling search engines to begin to take the social value of content (as evidences by discussions, ratings, sharing, linking, referrals, etc.) as an additional measurment in the relevancy equation. Those items which were both most relevant on a keyword level, and most relevant in the social graph (closer and/or more popular in the graph), were considered to be more relevant. Thus results could be ranked according to their social value — how many people in the community liked them and current activity level — as
well as by semantic relevancy measures.

In the coming third decade of the Web, Web 3.0 (2009 – 2019), there will be another shift in the search paradigm. This is a shift to from the past to the present, and from the social to the personal.

Established search engines like Google rank results primarily by keyword (semantic) relevancy. Social search engines rank results primarily by activity and social value (Digg, Twine 1.0, etc.). But the new search engines of the Web 3.0 era will also take into account two additional factors when determining relevancy: timeliness, and personalization.

Google returns the same results for everyone. But why should that be the case? In fact, when two different people search for the same information, they may want to get very different kinds of results. Someone who is a novice in a field may want beginner-level information to rank higher in the results than someone who is an expert. There may be a desire to emphasize things that are novel over things that have been seen before, or that have happened in the past — the more timely something is the more relevant it may be as well.

These two themes — present and personal — will define the next great search experience.

To accomplish this, we need to make progress on a number of fronts.

First of all, search engines need better ways to understand what content is, without having to do extensive computation. The best solution for this is to utilize metadata and the methods of the emerging semantic web.

Metadata reduces the need for computation in order to determine what content is about — it makes that explicit and machine-understandable. To the extent that machine-understandable metadata is added or generated for the Web, it will become more precisely searchable and productive for searchers.

This applies especially to the area of the real-time Web, where for example short “tweets” of content contain very little context to support good natural-language processing. There a little metadata can go a long way. In addition, of course metadata makes a dramatic difference in search of the larger non-real-time Web as well.

In addition to metadata, search engines need to modify their algorithms to be more personalized. Instead of a “one-size fits all” ranking for each query, the ranking may differ for different people depending on their varying interests and search histories.

Finally, to provide better search of the present, search has to become more realtime. To this end, rankings need to be developed that surface not only what just happened now, but what happened recently and is also trending upwards and/or of note. Realtime search has to be more than merely listing search results chronologically. There must be effective ways to filter the noise and surface what’s most important effectively. Social graph analysis is a key tool for doing this, but in
addition, powerful statistical analysis and new visualizations may also be required to make a compelling experience.

Sneak Peak – Siri — Interview with Tom Gruber

Sneak Preview of Siri – The Virtual Assistant that will Make Everyone Love the iPhone, Part 2: The Technical Stuff

In Part-One of this article on TechCrunch, I covered the emerging paradigm of Virtual Assistants and explored a first look at a new product in this category called Siri. In this article, Part-Two, I interview Tom Gruber, CTO of Siri, about the history, key ideas, and technical foundations of the product:

Nova Spivack: Can you give me a more precise definition of a Virtual Assistant?

Tom Gruber: A virtual personal assistant is a software system that

  • Helps the user find or do something (focus on tasks, rather than information)
  • Understands the user’s intent (interpreting language) and context (location, schedule, history)
  • Works on the user’s behalf, orchestrating multiple services and information sources to help complete the task

In other words, an assistant helps me do things by understanding me and working for me. This may seem quite general, but it is a fundamental shift from the way the Internet works today. Portals, search engines, and web sites are helpful but they don’t do things for me – I have to use them as tools to do something, and I have to adapt to their ways of taking input.

Nova Spivack: Siri is hoping to kick-start the revival of the Virtual Assistant category, for the Web. This is an idea which has a rich history. What are some of the past examples that have influenced your thinking?

Tom Gruber: The idea of interacting with a computer via a conversational interface with an assistant has excited the imagination for some time.  Apple’s famous Knowledge Navigator video offered a compelling vision, in which a talking head agent helped a professional deal with schedules and access information on the net. The late Michael Dertouzos, head of MIT’s Computer Science Lab, wrote convincingly about the assistant metaphor as the natural way to interact with computers in his book “The Unfinished Revolution: Human-Centered Computers and What They Can Do For Us”.  These accounts of the future say that you should be able to talk to your computer in your own words, saying what you want to do, with the computer talking back to ask clarifying questions and explain results.  These are hallmarks of the Siri assistant.  Some of the elements of these visions
are beyond what Siri does, such as general reasoning about science in the Knowledge Navigator.  Or self-awareness a la Singularity.  But Siri is the real thing, using real AI technology, just made very practical on a small set of domains. The breakthrough is to bring this vision to a mainstream market, taking maximum advantage of the mobile context and internet service ecosystems.

Nova Spivack: Tell me about the CALO project, that Siri spun out from. (Disclosure: my company, Radar Networks, consulted to SRI in the early days on the CALO project, to provide assistance with Semantic Web development)

Tom Gruber: Siri has its roots in the DARPA CALO project (“Cognitive Agent that Learns and Organizes”) which was led by SRI. The goal of CALO was to develop AI technologies (dialog and natural language understanding,s understanding, machine learning, evidential and probabilistic reasoning, ontology and knowledge representation, planning, reasoning, service delegation) all integrated into a virtual
assistant that helps people do things.  It pushed the limits on machine learning and speech, and also showed the technical feasibility of a task-focused virtual assistant that uses knowledge of user context and multiple sources to help solve problems.

Siri is integrating, commercializing, scaling, and applying these technologies to a consumer-focused virtual assistant.  Siri was under development for several years during and after the CALO project at SRI. It was designed as an independent architecture, tightly integrating the best ideas from CALO but free of the constraints of a national distributed research project. The Siri.com team has been evolving and hardening the technology since January 2008.

Nova Spivack: What are primary aspects of Siri that you would say are “novel”?

Tom Gruber: The demands of the consumer internet focus — instant usability and robust interaction with the evolving web — has driven us to come up with some new innovations:

  • A conversational interface that combines the best of speech and semantic language understanding with an interactive dialog that helps guide
    people toward saying what they want to do and getting it done. The
    conversational interface allows for much more interactivity that one-shot search style interfaces, which aids usability and improves intent understanding.  For example, if Siri didn’t quite hear what you said, or isn’t sure what you meant, it can ask for clarifying information.   For example, it can prompt on ambiguity: did you mean pizza restaurants in Chicago or Chicago-style pizza places near you? It can also make reasonable guesses based on context. Walking around with the phone at lunchtime, if the speech interpretation comes back with something garbled about food you probably meant “places to eat near my current location”. If this assumption isn’t right, it is easy to correct in a conversation.
  • Semantic auto-complete – a combination of the familiar “autocomplete” interface of search boxes with a semantic and linguistic model of what might be worth saying. The so-called “semantic completion” makes it possible to rapidly state complex requests (Italian restaurants in the SOMA neighborhood of San Francisco that have tables available tonight) with just a few clicks. It’s sort of like the power of faceted search a la Kayak, but packaged in a clever command line style interface that works in small form factor and low bandwidth environments.
  • Service delegation – Siri is particularly deep in technology for operationalizing a user’s intent into computational form, dispatching to multiple, heterogeneous services, gathering and integrating results, and presenting them back to the user as a set of solutions to their request.  In a restaurant selection task, for instance, Siri combines information from many different sources (local business directories, geospatial databases, restaurant guides, restaurant review sources, online reservation services, and the user’s own favorites) to show a set of candidates that meet the intent expressed in the user’s natural language request.

Nova Spivack: Why do you think Siri will succeed when other AI-inspired projects have failed to meet expectations?

Tom Gruber: In general my answer is that Siri is more focused. We can break this down into three areas of focus:

  • Task focus. Siri is very focused on a bounded set of specific human tasks, like finding something to do, going out with friends, and getting around town.  This task focus allows it to have a very rich model of its domain of competence, which makes everything more tractable from language understanding to reasoning to service invocation and results presentation
  • Structured data focus. The kinds of tasks that Siri is particularly good at involve semistructured data, usually on tasks involving multiple criteria and drawing from multiple sources.  For example, to help find a place to eat, user preferences for cuisine, price range, location, or even specific food items come into play.  Combining results from multiple sources requires
    reasoning about domain entity identity and the relative capabilities of different information providers.  These are hard problems of semantic
    information processing and integration that are difficult but feasible
    today using the latest AI technologies.
  • Architecture focus. Siri is built from deep experience in integrating multiple advanced technologies into a platform designed expressly for virtual assistants. Siri co-founder Adam Cheyer was chief architect of the CALO project, and has applied a career of experience to design the platform of the Siri product. Leading the CALO project taught him a lot about what works and doesn’t when applying AI to build a virtual assistant. Adam and I also have rather unique experience in combining AI with intelligent interfaces and web-scale knowledge integration. The result is a “pure  play” dedicated architecture for virtual assistants, integrating all the components of intent understanding, service delegation, and dialog flow management. We have avoided the need to solve general AI problems by concentrating on only what is needed for a virtual assistant, and have chosen to begin with a
    finite set of vertical domains serving mobile use cases.

Nova Spivack: Why did you design Siri primarily for mobile devices, rather than Web browsers in general?

Tom Gruber: Rather than trying to be like a search engine to all the world’s information, Siri is going after mobile use cases where deep models of context (place, time, personal history) and limited form factors magnify the power of an intelligent interface.  The smaller the form factor, the more mobile the context,
the more limited the bandwidth : the more it is important that the interface make intelligent use of the user’s attention and the resources at hand.  In other words, “smaller needs to be smarter.”  And the benefits of being offered just the right level of detail or being prompted with just the right questions can make the difference between task completion or failure.  When you are on the go, you just don’t have time to wade through pages of links and disjoint interfaces, many of which are not suitable to mobile at all.

Nova Spivack: What language and platform is Siri written in?

Tom Gruber: Java, Javascript, and Objective C (for the iPhone)

Nova Spivack: What about the Semantic Web? Is Siri built with Semantic Web open-standards such as RDF and OWL, Sparql?

Tom Gruber: No, we connect to partners on the web using structured APIs, some of which do use the Semantic Web standards.  A site that exposes RDF usually has an API that is easy to deal with, which makes our life easier.  For instance, we use geonames.org as one of our geospatial information sources. It is a full-on Semantic
Web endpoint, and that makes it easy to deal with.  The more the API declares its data model, the more automated we can make our coupling to it.

Nova Spivack: Siri seems smart, at least about the kinds of tasks it was designed for. How is the knowledge represented in Siri – is it an ontology or something else?

Tom Gruber: Siri’s knowledge is represented in a unified modeling system that combines ontologies, inference networks, pattern matching agents, dictionaries, and dialog models.  As much as possible we represent things declaratively (i.e., as data in models, not lines of code).  This is a tried and true best practice for complex AI systems.  This makes the whole system more robust and scalable, and the development process more agile.  It also helps with reasoning and learning, since Siri can look at what it knows and think about similarities and generalizations at a semantic level.


Nova Spivack: Will Siri be part of the Semantic Web, or at least the open linked data Web (by making open API’s, sharing of linked data, RDF, available, etc.)?

Tom Gruber: Siri isn’t a source of data, so it doesn’t expose data using Semantic Web standards.  In the Semantic Web ecosystem, it is doing something like the vision of a semantic desktop – an intelligent interface that knows about user needs
and sources of information to meet those needs, and intermediates.  The original Semantic Web article in Scientific American included use cases that an assistant would do (check calendars, look for things based on multiple structured criteria, route planning, etc.).  The Semantic Web vision focused on exposing the structured data, but it assumes APIs that can do transactions on the data.  For example, if a virtual assistant wants to schedule a dinner it needs more than the information
about the free/busy schedules of participants, it needs API access to their calendars with appropriate credentials, ways of communicating with the participants via APIs to their email/sms/phone, and so forth. Siri is building on the ecosystem of APIs, which are better if they declare the meaning of the data in and out via ontologies.  That is the original purpose of ontologies-as-specification that I promoted in the
1990s – to help specify how to interact with these agents via knowledge-level APIs.

Siri does, however, benefit greatly from standards for talking about space and time, identity (of people, places, and things), and authentication.  As I called for in my Semantic Web talk in 2007, there is no reason we should be string matching on city names, business names, user names, etc.

All players near the user in the ecommerce value chain get better when the information that the users need can be unambiguously identified, compared, and combined. Legitimate service providers on the supply end of the value chain also benefit, because structured data is harder to scam than text.  So if some service provider offers a multi-criteria decision making service, say, to help make a product purchase in some domain, it is much easier to do fraud detection when the product instances, features, prices, and transaction availability information are all structured data.

Nova Spivack: Siri appears to be able to handle requests in natural language. How good is the natural language processing (NLP) behind it? How have you made it better than other NLP?

Tom Gruber: Siri’s top line measure of success is task completion (not relevance).  A subtask is intent recognition, and subtask of that is NLP.  Speech is another element, which couples to NLP and adds its own issues.  In this context, Siri’s NLP is “pretty darn good” — if the user is talking about something in Siri’s domains of competence, its intent understanding is right the vast majority of the time, even in the face of noise from speech, single finger typing, and bad habits from too much keywordese.  All NLP is tuned for some class of natural language, and Siri’s is tuned for things that people might want to say when talking to a virtual assistant on their phone. We evaluate against a corpus, but I don’tknow how it would compare to standard message and news corpuses using by the NLP research community.


Nova Spivack: Did you develop your own speech interface, or are you using third-party system for that? How good is it? Is it battle-tested?

Tom Gruber: We use third party speech systems, and are architected so we can swap them out and experiment. The one we are currently using has millions of users and continuously updates its models based on usage.

Nova Spivack: Will Siri be able to talk back to users at any point?

Tom Gruber: It could use speech synthesis for output, for the appropriate contexts.  I have a long standing interest in this, as my early graduate work was in communication prosthesis. In the current mobile internet world, however, iPhone-sized screens and 3G networks make it possible to do so more much than read menu items over the phone.  For the blind, embedded appliances, and other applications it would make sense to give Siri voice output.

Nova Spivack: Can you give me more examples of how the NLP in Siri works?

Tom Gruber: Sure, here’s an example, published in the Technology Review, that illustrates what’s going on in a typical dialogue with Siri. (Click link to view the table)

Nova Spivack: How personalized does Siri get – will it recommend different things to me depending on where I am when I ask, and/or what I’ve done in the past? Does it learn?

Tom Gruber: Siri does learn in simple ways today, and it will get more sophisticated with time.  As you said, Siri is already personalized based on immediate context, conversational history, and personal information such as where you live.  Siri doesn’t forget things from request to request, as do stateless systems like search engines. It always considers the user model along with the domain and task models when coming up with results.  The evolution in learning comes as users have a history with Siri, which gives it achance to make some generalizations about preferences.  There is a natural progression with virtual assistants from doing exactly what they are asked, to making recommendations based on assumptions about intent and preference. That is the curve we will explore with experience.

Nova Spivack: How does Siri know what is in various external services – are you mining and doing extraction on their data, or is it all just real-time API calls?

Tom Gruber: For its current domains Siri uses dozens of APIs, and connects to them in both realtime access and batch data synchronization modes.  Siri knows about the data because we (humans) explicitly model what is in those sources.  With declarative representations of data and API capabilities, Siri can reason about the various capabilities of its sources at run time to figure out which combination would best serve the current user request.  For sources that do not have nice APIs or expose data using standards like the Semantic Web, we can draw on a value chain of players that do extract structure by data mining and exposing APIs via scraping.


Nova Spivack: Thank you for the information, Siri might actually make me like the iPhone enough to start using one again.

Tom Gruber: Thank you, Nova, it’s a pleasure to discuss this with someone who really gets the technology and larger issues. I hope Siri does get you to use that iPhone again. But remember, Siri is just starting out and will sometimes say silly things. It’s easy to project intelligence onto an assistant, but Siri isn’t going to pass the Turing Test. It’s just a simpler, smarter way to do what you already want to do. It will be interesting to see how this space evolves, how people will come to understand what to expect from the little personal assistant in their pocket.

Video: My Talk on The Future of Libraries — "Library 3.0"

If you are interested in semantics, taxonomies, education, information overload and how libraries are evolving, you may enjoy this video of my talk on the Semantic Web and the Future of Libraries at the OCLC Symposium at the American Library Association Midwinter 2009 Conference. This event focused around a dialogue between David Weinberger and myself, moderated by Roy Tennant. We were forutnate to have an audience of about 500 very vocal library directors in the audience and it was an intensive day of thinking together. Thanks to the folks at OCLC for a terrific and really engaging event!

Fast Company Interview — "Connective Intelligence"

In this interview with Fast Company, I discuss my concept of "connective intelligence." Intelligence is really in the connections between things, not the things themselves. Twine facilitates smarter connections between content, and between people. This facilitates the emergence of higher levels of collective intelligence.

New Video: Leading Minds from Google, Yahoo, and Microsoft talk about their Visions for Future of The Web

Video from my panel at DEMO Fall ’08 on the Future of the Web is now available.

I moderated the panel, and our panelists were:

Howard Bloom, Author, The Evolution of Mass Mind from the Big Bang to the 21st Century

Peter Norvig, Director of Research, Google Inc.

Jon Udell, Evangelist, Microsoft Corporation

Prabhakar Raghavan, PhD, Head of Research and Search Strategy, Yahoo! Inc.

The panel was excellent, with many DEMO attendees saying it was the best panel they had ever seen at DEMO.

Many new and revealing insights were provided by our excellent panelists. I was particularly interested in the different ways that Google and Yahoo describe what they are working on. They covered lots of new and interesting information about their thinking. Howard Bloom added fascinating comments about the big picture and John Udell helped to speak about Microsoft’s longer-term views as well.

Enjoy!!!

Associative Search and the Semantic Web: The Next Step Beyond Natural Language Search

Our present day search engines are a poor match for the way that our brains actually think and search for answers. Our brains search associatively along networks of relationships. We search for things that are related to things we know, and things that are related to those things. Our brains not only search along these networks, they sense when networks intersect, and that is how we find things. I call this associative search, because we search along networks of associations between things.

Human memory — in other words, human search — is associative. It works by “homing in” on what we are looking for, rather than finding exact matches. Compare this to the the keyword search that is so popular on the Web today and there are obvious differences. Keyword searching provides a very weak form of “homing in” — by choosing our keywords carefully we can limit the set of things which match. But the problem is we can only find things which contain those literal keywords.

There is no actual use of associations in keyword search, it is just literal matching to keywords. Our brains on the other hand use a much more sophisticated form of “homing in” on answers. Instead of literal matches, our brains look for things things which are associatively connected to things we remember, in order to find what we are ultimately looking for.

For example, consider the case where you cannot remember someone’s name. How do you remember it? Usually we start by trying to remember various facts about that person. By doing this our brains then start networking from those facts to other facts and finally to other memories that they intersect.  Ultimately through this process of “free association” or “associative memory” we home in on things which eventually trigger a memory of the person’s name.

Both forms of search make use of the intersections of sets, but the associative search model is exponentially more powerful because for every additional search term in your query, an entire network of concepts, and relationships between them, is implied. One additional term can result in an entire network of related queries, and when you begin to intersect the different networks that result from multiple
terms in the query, you quickly home in on only those results that make sense. In keyword search on the other hand, each additional search term only provides a linear benefit — there is no exponential amplification using networks.

Keyword search is a very weak approximation of associative search because there really is no concept of a relationship at all. By entering keywords into a search engine like Google we are simulating an associative search, but without the real power of actual relationships between things to help us. Google does not know how various concepts are related and it doesn’t take that into account when helping us find things. Instead, Google just looks for documents that contain exact matches to the terms we are looking for and weights them statistically. It makes some use of relationships between Web pages to rank the results, but it does not actually search along relationships to find new results.

Basically the problem today is that Google does not work the way our brains think. This difference creates an inefficiency for searchers: We have to do the work of translating our associative way of thinking into “keywordese” that is likely to return results we want. Often this requires a bit of trial and error and reiteration of our searches before we get result sets that match our needs.

A recently proposed solution to the problem of “keywordese” is natural language search (or NLP search), such as what is being proposed by companies like Powerset and Hakia. Natural language search engines are slightly closer to the way we actually think because they at least attempt to understand ordinary language instead of requiring keywords. You can ask a question and get answers to that question that make sense.

Natural language search engines are able to understand the language of a query and the language in the result documents in order to make a better match between the question and potential answers. But this is still not true associative search. Although these systems bear a closer resemblance to the way we think, they still do not actually leverage the power of networks — they are still not as powerful as associative search.

Continue reading

A Few Predictions for the Near Future

This is a five minute video in which I was asked to make some predictions for the next decade about the Semantic Web, search and artificial intelligence. It was done at the NextWeb conference and was a fun interview.


Learning from the Future with Nova Spivack from Maarten on Vimeo.

My Visit to DERI — World's Premier Semantic Web Research Institute

Earlier this month I had the opportunity to visit, and speak at, the Digital Enterprise Research Institute (DERI), located in Galway, Ireland. My hosts were Stefan Decker, the director of the lab, and John Breslin who is heading the SIOC project.

DERI has become the world’s premier research institute for the Semantic Web. Everyone working in the field should know about them, and if you can, you should visit the lab to see what’s happening there.

Part of the National University of Ireland, Galway. With over 100 researchers focused solely on the Semantic Web, and very significant financial backing, DERI has, to my knowledge, the highest concentration of Semantic Web expertise on the planet today. Needless to say, I was very impressed with what I saw there. Here is a brief synopsis of some of the projects that I was introduced to:

  • Semantic Web Search Engine (SWSE) and YARS, a massively scalable triplestore.  These projects are concerned with crawling and indexing the information on the Semantic Web so that end-users can find it. They have done good work on consolidating data and also on building a highly scalable triplestore architecture.
  • Sindice — An API and search infrastructure for the Semantic Web. This project is focused on providing a rapid indexing API that apps can use to get their semantic content indexed, and that can also be used by apps to do semantic searches and retrieve semantic content from the rest of the Semantic Web. Sindice provides Web-scale semantic search capabilities to any semantic application or service.
  • SIOC — Semantically Interlinked Online Communities. This is an ontology for linking and sharing data across online communities in an open manner, that is getting a lot of traction. SIOC is on its way to becoming a standard and may play a big role in enabling portability and interoperability of social Web data.
  • JeromeDL is developing technology for semantically enabled digital libraries. I was impressed with the powerful faceted navigation and search capabilities they demonstrated.
  • notitio.us. is a project for personal knowledge management of bookmarks and unstructured data.
  • SCOT, OpenTagging and Int.ere.st.  These projects are focused on making tags more interoperable, and for generating social networks and communities from tags. They provide a richer tag ontology and framework for representing, connecting and sharing tags across applications.
  • Semantic Web Services.  One of the big opportunities for the Semantic Web that is often overlooked by the media is Web services. Semantics can be used to describe Web services so they can find one another and connect, and even to compose and orchestrate transactions and other solutions across networks of Web services, using rules and reasoning capabilities. Think of this as dynamic semantic middleware, with reasoning built-in.
  • eLite. I was introduced to the eLite project, a large e-learning initiative that is applying the Semantic Web.
  • Nepomuk.  Nepomuk is a large effort supported by many big industry players. They are making a social semantic desktop and a set of developer tools and libraries for semantic applications that are being shipped in the Linux KDE distribution. This is a big step for the Semantic Web!
  • Semantic Reality. Last but not least, and perhaps one of the most eye-opening demos I saw at DERI, is the Semantic Reality project. They are using semantics to integrate sensors with the real world. They are creating an infrastructure that can scale to handle trillions of sensors eventually. Among other things I saw, you can ask things like "where are my keys?" and the system will search a network of sensors and show you a live image of your keys on the desk where you left them, and even give you a map showing the exact location. The service can also email you or phone you when things happen in the real world that you care about — for example, if someone opens the door to your office, or a file cabinet, or your car, etc. Very groundbreaking research that could seed an entire new industry.

In summary, my visit to DERI was really eye-opening and impressive. I recommend that major organizations that want to really see the potential of the Semantic Web, and get involved on a research and development level, should consider a relationship with DERI — they are clearly the leader in the space.

My Commentary: Radar Networks Raises $13M for Twine

I am pleased to announce that my company Radar Networks, has raised a $13M Series B investment round to grow our product, Twine. The investment comes from Velocity Interactive Group, DFJ, and Vulcan. Ross Levinsohn — the man who acquired and ran MySpace for Fox Interactive — will be joining our board. I’m very excited to be working with Ross and to have his help guiding Twine as it grows.

We are planning to use these funds to begin rolling Twine out to broader consumer markets as part of our multi-year plan to build Twine into the leading service for organizing, sharing and discovering information around interests. One of the key themes of Web 3.0 is to be help people make sense of the overwhelming amount of information and change in the online world, and at Twine, we think interests are going to play a key organizing role in that process.

Your interests comprise the portion of your information and relationships that are actually important enough that you want to keep track of them and share them with others. The question that Twine addresses is how to help individuals and groups more efficiently locate, manage and communicate around their interests in the onslaught of online information they have to cope with. The solution to information overload is not to organize all the information in the world (an impossible task), it is to help individuals and groups organize THEIR information (a much more feasible goal).

In March we are going to expand the Twine beta to begin letting more people in. Currently we have around 30,000 people on the wait-list and more coming in steadily. In March we will start letting all of these people in, gradually in waves of a few thousand at a time, and letting them invite their friends in. So to get into Twine you need to sign up on the list on the Twine site, or have a friend who is already in the service invite you in. I look forward to seeing you in Twine!

The last few months of closed beta have been very helpful in getting a lot of useful feedback and testing that has helped us improve the product in many ways. This next wave will be an exciting phase for Twine as we begin to really grow the service with more users. I am sure there will be a lot of great feedback and improvements that result from this.

However, even though we will be letting more people in soon, we are still very much in beta and will be for quite some time to come — There will still be things that aren’t finished, aren’t perfect, or aren’t there yet — so your patience will be appreciated as we continue to work on Twine over the coming year. We are letting people in to help us guide the service in the right direction, and to learn from our users. Today Twine is about 10% of what we have planned for it. First we have to get the basics right — then, in the coming year, we will really start to surface more of the power of the underlying semantic platform. We’re psyched to get all this built — what we have planned is truly exciting!

Video of My Semantic Web Talk

This is a video of me giving commentary on my "Understanding the Semantic Web" talk and how it relates to Twine, to a group of French business school students who made a visit to our office last month.


Here is the link to the video,
if the embedded version below does not play.

Nova Spivack – Semantic Web Talk from Nicolas Cynober on Vimeo.

Powerpoint Deck: Making Sense of the Semantic Web, and Twine

Now that I have been asked by several dozen people for the slides from my talk on "Making Sense of the Semantic Web," I guess it’s time to put them online. So here they are, under the Creative Commons Attribution License (you can share it with attribution this site).

You can download the Powerpoint file at the link below:

Download nova_spivack_semantic_web_talk.ppt


Or you can view it right here:

Enjoy! And I look forward to your thoughts and comments.

Quick Video Preview of Twine

The New Scientist just posted a quick video preview of Twine to YouTube. It only shows a tiny bit of the functionality, but it’s a sneak peak.

We’ve been letting early beta testers into Twine and we’re learning a lot from all the great feedback, and also starting to see some cool new uses of Twine. There are around 20,000 people on the wait-list already, and more joining every day. We’re letting testers in slowly, focusing mainly on people who can really help us beta test the software at this early stage, as we go through iterations on the app. We’re getting some very helpful user feedback to make Twine better before we open it up the world.

For now, here’s a quick video preview:

True Knowledge is Cool

The most interesting and exciting new app I’ve seen this month (other than Twine of course!) is a new semantic search engine called True Knowledge. Go to their site and watch their screencast to see what the next generation of search is really going to look like.

True Knowledge is doing something very different from Twine — whereas Twine is about helping individuals, groups and teams manage their private and shared knowledge, True Knowledge is about making a better public knowledgebase on the Web — in a sense they are a better search engine combined with a better Wikipedia. They seem to overlap more with what is being done by natural language search companies like Powerset and companies working on public databases, such as Metaweb and Wikia.

I don’t yet know whether True Knowledge is supporting W3C open-standards for the Semantic Web, but if they do, they will be well-positioned to become a very central service in the next phase of the Web. If they don’t they will just be yet another silo of data — but a very useful one at least. I personally hope they provide SPARQL API access at the very least. Congratulations to the team at True Knowledge! This is a very impressive piece of work.

Is Google Making Social Networking Middleware?

Google’s recent announcement of their OpenSocial API’s appears to be a new form of middleware for connecting social networks together. But it’s too early to tell, since the technical details are not available yet. The notion of a middleware service for connecting social networks and sharing data between them makes a lot of sense, and if Google has really made it "open" then it could be very useful. The question remains of course, why would Google do this unless there is some way they have a unique benefit from it? My guess is that they will run advertising through this system, and will have unique advantages in their ability to target ads to people based on the social network profiles they can see via this system. We’ll have to wait and see what happens, but it is interesting.

From the perspective of Radar Networks and Twine.com, this is a trend we are watching closely. It could be something to integrate with, but until we really see the technical details we’ll reserve judgement.

What a Week!

What a week it has been for Radar Networks. We have worked so hard these last few days to get ready to unveil Twine, and it has been a real thrill to show our work and get such positive feedback and support from the industry, bloggers, the media and potential users.

We really didn’t expect so much excitement and interest. In fact we’ve been totally overwhelmed by the response as thousands upon thousands of people have contacted us in the last 24 hours asking to join our beta, telling us how they would use Twine for their personal information management, their collaboration, their organizations, and their communities. Clearly there is such a strong and growing need out there for the kind of Knowledge Networking capabilities that Twine provides, and it’s been great to hear the stories and make new connections with so many people who want our product. We love hearing about your interest in Twine, what you would use it for, what you want it to do, and why you need it! Keep those stories coming. We read them all and we really listen to them.

Today, in unveiling Twine, over five years of R&D, and contributions from dozens of core contributors, a dedicated group of founders and investors, and hundreds of supporters, advisors, friends and family, all came to fruition. As a company, and a team, we achieved an important milestone and we should all take some time to really appreciate what we have accomplished so far. Twine is a truly ambitious and pardigm-shifting product, that is not only technically profound but visually stunning — There has been so much love and attention to detail in this product.

In the last 6 months, Twine has really matured into a product, a product that solves real and growing needs (for a detailed use-case see this post). And just as our product has matured, so has our organization: As we doubled in size, our corporate culture has become tremendously more interesting, innovative and fun. I could go on and on about the cool things we do as a company and the interesting people who work here. But it’s the passion, dedication and talent of this team that is most inspiring. We are creating a team and a culture that truly has the potential to become a great Silicon Valley company: The kind of company that I’ve always wanted to build.

Although we launched today, this is really just the beginning of the real adventure. There is still much for us to build, learn about, and improve before Twine will really accomplish all the goals we have set out  for it. We have a five-year roadmap. We know this is a marathon, not a sprint and that "slow and steady wins the race." As an organization we also have much learning and growing to do. But this really doesn’t feel like work — it feels like fun — because we all love this product and this company. We all wake up every day totally psyched to work on this.

It’s been an intense, challenging, and rewarding week. Everyone on my team has impressed me and really been at the top of their game. Very few of us got any real sleep, and most of us went far beyond the call of duty. But we did it, and we did it well. As a company we have never cut corners, and we have always preferred to do things the right way, even if the right way is the hard way. But that pays off in the end. That is how great products are built. I really want to thank my co-founders, my team, my investors, advisors, friends, and family, for all their dedication and support.

Today, we showed our smiling new baby to the world, and the world smiled back.

And tonight , we partied!!!

Radar Networks Announces Twine.com

My company, Radar Networks, has just come out of stealth. We’ve announced what we’ve been working on all these years: It’s called Twine.com. We’re going to be showing Twine publicly for the first time at the Web 2.0 Summit tomorrow. There’s lot’s of press coming out where you can read about what we’re doing in more detail. The team is extremely psyched and we’re all working really hard right now so I’ll be brief for now. I’ll write a lot more about this later.

Continue reading

Gartner is Wrong about Web 3.0

I have a lot of respect for the folks at Gartner, but their recent report in which they support the term "Web 2.0" yet claim that the term "Web 3.0" is just a marketing ploy, is a bit misguided.

In fact, quite the opposite is true.

The term Web 2.0 is in fact just a marketing ploy. It has only come to have something resembling a definition over time. Because it is in fact so ill-defined, I’ve suggested in the past that we just use it to refer to a decade: the second decade of the Web (2000 – 2010). After all there is no actual technology that is called "Web 2.0" — at best there are a whole slew of things which this term seems to label, and many of them are design patterns, not technologies. For example "tagging" is not a technology, it is a design pattern. A tag is a keyword, a string of text — there is not really any new technology there. AJAX is also not a technology in its own right, but rather a combination of technologies and design patterns, most of which existed individually before the onset of what is called Web 2.0.

In contrast, the term Web 3.0 actually does refer to a set of new technologies, and changes they will usher in during the third decade of the Web (2010 – 2020). Chief among these is the Semantic Web. The Semantic Web is actually not one technology, but many. Some of them such as RDF and OWL have been under development for years, even during the Web 2.0 era, and others such as SPARQL and GRDDL are recent emerging standards. But that is just the beginning. As the Semantic Web develops there will be several new technology pieces added to the puzzle for reasoning, developing and sharing open rule definitions, handling issues around trust, agents, machine learning, ontology development and integration, semantic data storage, retrieval and search, and many other subjects.

Essentially, the Semantic Web enables the gradual transformation of the Web into a database. This is a profound structural change that will touch every layer of Web technology eventually. It will transform database technology, CMS, CRM, enterprise middleware, systems integration, development tools, search engines, groupware, supply-chain integration, and all the other topics that Gartner covers.

The Semantic Web will manifest in several ways. In many cases it will improve applications and services we already use. So for example, we will see semantic
social networks, semantic search, semantic groupware, semantic CMS, semantic CRM, semantic
email, and many other semantic versions of apps we use today. For a specific example, take social networking. We are seeing much talk about "opening  up the social graph" so that social networks are more connected and portable. Ultimately to do this right, the social graph should be represented using Semantic Web standards, so that it truly is not only open but also easily extensible and mashable with other data. 

Web 3.0 is not ONLY the Semantic Web however. Other emerging technologies may play a big role as well. Gartner seems to think Virtual Reality will be one of them. Perhaps, but to be fair, VR is actually a Web 1.0 phenomenon. It’s been around for a long time, and it hasn’t really changed that much. In fact the folks at the MIT Media Lab were working on things that are still far ahead of Second Life, even back in the early 1990’s.

So what other technologies can we expect in Web 3.0 that are actually new? I expect that we will have a big rise in "cloud computing" such as open peer-to-peer grid storage and computing capabilities on the Web — giving any application essentially as much storage and computational power as needed for free or a very low cost. In the mobile arena we will see higher bandwidth, more storage and more powerful processors in mobile devices, as well as powerful built-in speech recognition, GPS and motion sensors enabling new uses to emerge. I think we will also see an increase in the power of personalization tools and personal assistant tools that try to help users manage the complexity of their digital lives. In the search arena, we will see search engines get smarter — among other things they will start to not only answer questions, but they will accept commands such as "find me a cheap flight to NYC" and they will learn and improve as they are used. We will also see big improvements in integration and data and account portability between different Web applications. We will also see a fundamental change in the database world as databases move away from the relational model and object model, towards the associative model of data (graph databases and triplestores).

In short, Web 3.0 is about hard-core new technologies and is going to have a much greater impact on enterprise IT managers and IT systems than Web 2.0. But ironically, it may not be until Web 4.0 (2020 – 2030) that Gartner comes to this conclusion!

Open Source Projects for Extracting Data and Metadata from Files & the Web

I’ve been looking around for open-source libraries (preferably in Java, but not required) for extracting data and metadata from common file formats and Web formats. One project that looks very promising is Aperture. Do you know of any others that are ready or almost ready for prime-time use? Please let me know in the comments! Thanks.

The Rise of the Social Operating System

In recent months we have witnessed a number of social networking sites begin to open up their platforms to outside developers. While this trend has been exhibited most prominently by Facebook, it is being embraced by all the leading social networking services, such as Plaxo, LinkedIn, Myspace and others. Along separate dimensions we also see a similar trend towards "platformization" in IM platforms such as Skype as well as B2B tools such as Salesforce.com.

If we zoom out and look at all this activity from a distance it appears that there is a race taking place to become "the social operating" system of the Web. A social operating system might be defined as a system that provides for systematic management and facilitation of human social relationships and interactions.

We might list some of the key capabilities of an ideal "social operating system" as:

  • Identity management
    • Open portable identity
    • Personal profiles ("personas")
    • Privacy control
  • Relationship management
    • Directory and lookup services (location of people to communicate with)
    • Social networking (opt-in relationship formation, indirect social connectivity via social networks)
    • Spam control
  • Communication
    • Person to person communication
      • Synchronous (IM, VOIP)
      • Asynchronous (email, SMS)
    • Group communication
      • Synchronous (conferencing)
      • Asynchronous (group discussions)
  • Social Content distribution
    • Personal publishing (blogging, home pages)
    • Public content distribution
  • Social Coordination
    • Event management (scheduling, invitations, RSVP’s)
    • Calendaring
  • Social Collaboration
    • File sharing
    • Document collaboration (communal authoring/editing)
    • Collaborative filtering
    • Recommendation systems
    • Knowledge management
    • Human powered search
    • Project management
    • Workflow
  • Commerce
    • Classified advertising
    • Auctions
    • Shopping

Today I have not seen any single player that provides a coherent solution to this entire "social stack" however Microsoft, Yahoo, and AOL are probably the strongest contenders. Can Facebook and other social networks truly compete or will they ultimately be absorbed into one of these larger players?

Web 3.0 — Next-Step for Web?

The Business 2.0 Article on Radar Networks and the Semantic Web just came online. It’s a huge article. In many ways it’s one of the best popular articles written about the Semantic Web in the mainstream press. It also goes into a lot of detail about what Radar Networks is working on.

One point of clarification, just in case anyone is wondering…

Web 3.0 is not just about machines — it’s actually all about humans — it leverages social networks, folksonomies, communities and social filtering AS WELL AS the Semantic Web, data mining, and artificial intelligence. The combination of the two is more powerful than either one on it’s own. Web 3.0 is Web 2.0 + 1. It’s NOT Web 2.0 – people. The "+ 1" is the
addition of software and metadata that help people and other
applications organize and make better sense of the Web. That new layer
of semantics — often called "The Semantic Web" — will add to and
build on the existing value provided by social networks, folksonomies,
and collaborative filtering that are already on the Web.

So at least here at Radar Networks, we are focusing much of our effort on facilitating people to help them help themselves, and to help each other, make sense of the Web. We leverage the amazing intelligence of the human brain, and we augment that using the Semantic Web, data mining, and artificial intelligence. We really believe that the next generation of collective intelligence is about creating systems of experts not expert systems.