Inventing the Semantic Web…Again

Executive Summary

Few would doubt the power and potential of the Semantic Web. Still, for the Semantic Web to truly take hold, consideration must be given to the design and experiences around the tools and applications that will play no small part in making it a success. The history of technology innovations is rife with examples of mass adoption materializing only after such innovations are wrapped in accessible and useful experiences. For the Semantic Web to grow, we must consider the patterns and goals of of everyday users and build tools that deliver the power fo the Semantic Web without exposing its complexities.


In many ways, the Semantic Web is a response to the chaos that is the World Wide Web of today. The Web of today revolutionized information delivery but fell short of truly connecting resources in some real, usable manner. Few would argue that a more semantic World Wide Web is better than the haphazardly connected Web of today.

Still, even the most enthusiastic advocates of the Semantic Web today are humbled by the sheer volume of information that comprises the Web of today. Amidst the awesome rise of the World Wide Web, there are lessons to be learned. What caused the Web to explode? What motivated people to produce content for the Web? What barriers were eliminated so that the less technical among us could leverage and more importantly, contribute to the Web of today?

Lessons From Technology’s Past

As we glance across the timeline of technology innovations and pause at the key milestones, we’ll notice that nearly every invention is invented in reality first and then invented again as far as the masses are concerned.

The rise of email provides a lucid example. The origins of email date back to the 1960’s. Back then, email lived primarily within the walls of universities and research projects. By the 1970’s, email services became available to consumers with services like Compuserve. Compuserve was undoubtedly useful, but it was far from approachable for the typical layman. In the 1980’s, services like Prodigy and America Online came on the scene and for millions, email was finally invented. The infrastructure of email had been around for years, but it was only until “You’ve got mail” echoed in millions of homes that email was truly invented, in the eyes of most.

Another example can be found in the world of portable devices. The first digital portable music player went to market in 1997. Numerous companies tried to break through the market only to find modest success in niche markets. The world would have to wait another four years for the unveiling of the portable music player. Apple introduced it’s first portable player, the iPod, in 2001. The rest, as they say, is history.

A final example worth sharing is the World Wide Web itself. The Web we know of today took years to materialize but few would argue that the Web’s popularity tipped only after the first easy-to-use Web browser came to be (the Mosaic web browser). Only after all the complexities were hidden away did the Web take off.

Looking back, this pattern repeats itself for nearly every technology innovation. Few innovations nail it the first go round, not just technically but also in terms of revealing the innovation in a usable and approachable manner.

There are lessons to be learned from another promising technology that sought mass adoption status of the Web: RSS. RSS is a relatively simple XML standard that facilitates the subscription and tracking of information sources on the Web. In its early years, RSS enjoyed some niche usage and appeared to be poised for mass adoption. Fast forward to present day and RSS enjoys some success but never really attained mass appeal.

One of the reasons RSS failed to take off is that the experience around it was disjointed and unhelpful. Most of us can recall just a few years ago when a click on that odd orange “XML” icon led your browser to a page full of gibberish (i.e. the raw RSS xml). Just recently, web browsers began styling and handling RSS in a more user-friendly way. Another reason RSS never took off is the hodge-podge of tools out there to handle RSS. RSS is by no means a failure, but few would dispute that it never reached the penetration of email.

Riding The Wave

As the various components of the Semantic Web solidify (standards like RDF, OWL and SPARQL), very little attention has been given towards enabling the masses around the Semantic Web. The Semantic Web, like the Web of today, is a conceptual invention. Its various standards lay the ground rules and provide a suggested approach towards making the Sematic Web a reality. Still, a killer app (or a collection of killer apps) is needed. Just as HTTP and HTML (the ground rules of today’s Web) needed the web browser to take off, the Semantic Web needs that killer application. Note that the “killer app” as described here need not be a desktop client like a browser. It could well be a web destination that masks away the complexities surrounding the Semantic Web.

Another challenge for the mass adoption of the Semantic Web is the very existence of the vast not-so-Semantic Web that exists today. Warts and all, we cannot deny the gravitational pull of the world’s existing unstructured data pool. Google continues to commit enormous resources towards make sense of the mess of content that makes up the Web today. It would be delusional to presume that the Semantic Web of tomorrow will live elsewhere and somehow entice users away from the (admittedly messy) Web of today.

Instead, proponents of the Semantic Web should think about how to ride along the momentum of the existing Web. The Microformats initiative is an excellent example of leveraging the current Web to create and propogate better semantic connections. Where else can we find opportunities to connect data on the Web? Locations (via mapping tools), people (via the slew of personalization and identity tools out there) and dates (via sites like Wikipedia) are ripe for an improved semantic context today.

An immense amount of information is being added to the Web every day. As the Web has morphed from a publish-read model to more of a software platform, we’ve seen an explosion in content creation. Sites like Flickr, Amazon and blogging tools constantly generate enormous amounts of new content. Efforts should be made to inject semantic “trimmings” around new information. Even incremental tweaks can lead to immensely powerful results once the switches around these semantic links are turned on. This requires efforts around evangelizing the virtues of the Semantic Web.

If the first hurdle – wrapping semantic metadata around the content on the Web today – is achieved, the next challenge is to provide tools that show off the capabilities of the Semantic Web. SPARQL is maturing into a powerful querying language, but the success of the Semantic Web will hinge on querying and searching tools that mask away the complexities around querying. Ask any Microsoft SQL adminsitrator, and they’ll enthusiastically extol the virtues of Enterprise Manager and Query Analayzer. Even beyond the expert users, the Semantic Web will require friendlier and more intuitive experiences around finding and exploring semantic data.

The Web of today did one thing right: it made it easy to create and connect content for human consumption. Its power and value was immediately visible to users and the rest, as they say, is history. The Semantic Web beautifully redefines the Web as we know it by tapping the power of tying resources together in real, substantive ways. Its potential is enormous and the enthusiasm around it is fully justified. But let’s not fool ourselves. We still need legions of users to make the Semantic Web successful. To win them over, we’re going to need to speak to their goals and we need to mask the complexity and filter out and deliver the power of the Semantic Web in a manner that most can appreciate. Only then will the Semantic Web be truly invented.