Danny and Henry Respond

Danny Ayers and Henry Story both posted thoughtful replies to my Meaning and Future of the Semantic Web essay. A few comments to their points below…

Danny mentions:

Similarly, there’s a good chance of a few killer apps coming along –
Semantic Web tech does open a few interesting doors. But I think it may
be slightly misleading to talk of complete integration of current
content and applications.

I’m pretty sure it wasn’t Nova’s intention, but that paragraph does
give the impression that the difference between the current Web and the
Semantic Web can be viewed in black and white. I think it’s far more
like a continuum (a point I was trying to make in The Shortest Path).

a useful clarification and I would have to agree. There will probably
still be many sites that are not integrated with any form of Semantic
Web technology … directly. But I think it’s a safe statement
to claim that most or all sites will be integrated at least indirectly
— for example by being indexed and searchable in a third-party
semantic search engine, or mined into other semantic apps that pull in
their content and then make it available in semantic form. In any case,
I agree with Danny that it will be a continuum with a power law
distribution in terms of levels of integration. As Danny mentions, the
present Web and the Semantic Web should not be taken as black and
white. Indeed, from one perspective, as he points out, the present Web
2.0 already includes certain technologies that could be called
"semantic" today, such as certain flavors of RSS, ATOM, or
microformats, etc.

Danny also mentions:

Ok, looking ahead say 10 years, I don’t think we’ll see the use of RDF
and associated tech within a large proportion of applications on the
Web. But I also don’t believe this is cause for pessimism, far from it.
Massive deployment of SemWeb tech isn’t needed for there to be a huge
growth in the utility of the web thanks to that tech. Even if only say
0.0001% of applications actually use Semantic Web technologies, we will
still have a Semantic Web.

would agree with that — as long as that 0.0001% includes several large
services that are part of the "core" of the Web, services such as
Yahoo, Flickr, MySpace, Facebook, or the like which are widely
connected and used. If at least a good chunk of the core becomes
semantic, the surrounding petals will all benefit from the increased
semantics of the core, even if they don’t include semantics directly
themselves. However, it is my perhaps idealistic hope that we can find
a way to make semantics valuable and turnkey enough that even smaller
content providers will be able to include them in their apps and
services. For example, the work going on with ActiveRDF
could make RDF feasible for a large number of Ruby On Rails
applications. Other work is going on to make triplestores and semantic
search capabilities brainlessly easy to graft onto other applications
as well. And of course we haven’t talked about the end-user experience
side of things — for example, PiggyBank
which has some built-in screenscraping in it that can turn non-semantic
content into semantic content; yet another way to get a lot of semantic
content created from the regular non-semantic Web. I’m not saying that
PiggyBank has made it easy enough for ordinary consumers to make use of
these capabilities instantly, but with some more work they could get
there, or someone could at least.

Henry also reminds us:

don’t forget that a Journey of a thousand miles begins beneath one’s feet.
It is good to know where you are going, but the length of the journey
may be frightening to some. Don’t try to want to be at the end of the
journey allready. You’ll be there soon enough, trust me, time passes
very quickly. Enjoy every second of it.

enough, Henry! I admit my paper does spend quite a lot of pages on the
big opportunities and the long-term sea-change that may come about from
making the Web smarter. And realistically we are still in the very very
early stages of this trend. Spending almost every waking hour, for
several years, working to bring the Semantic Web to the masses has
probably made me  sliiiiggggghtly biased about all this! Seeing
what is possible in the lab does capture the imagination and I really
have "drunk the Semantic Web Kool-Aid" — heck I drink the stuff
instead of water. Perhaps it might seem like my write-up is a little
bit like yelling "Hey Semantic Web Kool-Aid!" and then hoping that the
big Semantic Web Kool-Aid character will burst through wall like in the
TV commercial. But the difference is that at my own company at least,
we really do have some Semantic Web Kool Aid flowing and we’re mixing
some more. Hopefully enough for a lot of ordinary consumers, and
non-expert developers. I know what the stuff tastes like. It’s pretty
good. We’re working on how to bottle and ship it now. That’s the big
challenge, really.

We, and others, have the technology at this point and it’s the next leap beyond the mostly research-oriented Semantic Web tools
that exist today (thanks for that link, Henry) — it’s more accessible
to ordinary mortals. Now we just have to get our Bionic Man off the
operating table and out into the world — and we have to prove that
there is a business model for Semantic Web apps too (after all we are
commercial venture, not pure research). I can’t think of anymore 1980’s
TV metaphors to use — ok, well Star Trek, heck. It’s true my long-term
vision for the Semantic Web is like going on a mission to explore new
worlds, far far beyond where we are today. But as Henry points out, if
you know where you (might) be headed you can enjoy the ride even more!

Thanks for the feedback, guys!