Tim Berners-Lee has been talking about the next World Wide Web almost since the first World Wide Web, which he's credited with inventing, took off. Indeed, Berners-Lee first articulated his vision for a next generation Web in 1998, when he called for a standards-based system for tying together all the different kinds of information that companies and consumers now wrestle with. "Semantic Web" is the term he came up with to describe what the next version of the Internet will look like. It's not great branding, as Berners-Lee, himself, has admitted, and some folks have just slapped the label "Web 3.0" on the whole endeavour.
Of course, the World Wide Web was a phenomenon that went "viral" (before that term was widely ascribed to technological phenomena) and spread globally in a matter of years. But Berners-Lee has had to struggle mightily for almost a decade to promote his vision of life beyond the WWW, promoting new standards like RDF (Rich Document Format) and OWL (Web Ontology Language) before most people had a clear notion of how they'd be used.
All that work finally appears to be paying off, if the crowds and buzz at the Semantic Technology Conference are any indication. The conference, which is being held this week in San Jose, may be remembered as a kind of turning point, where years of largely academic discussions of Semantic technology ontologies and standards within the international standards community finally began to produce real applications and attract real interest from large technology vendors, venture capitalists and enterprise IT leaders.
"The tie count is way up this year," Richard Mark Soley, CEO of the Object Management Group told InfoWorld. "The shoe count is up too, I think."
Soley, who spoke on a keynote panel with IT executives from Oracle, NASA and UK-based Semantic technology startup Garlik said that, compared with previous years, discussions at the Semantic Tech conference had become much more practical than theoretical, especially with both open source and commercial development tools for integrating business processes using Semantic technology.
Indeed, a casual stroll of the halls of the San Jose Fairmont Hotel reveals a who's who of major US enterprises -- with representatives from Citigroup, BearingPoint, Boeing, Northrup Grumman checking out sessions on using Semantic technology for content management, securing Semantic technology and how Semantic technology can be used to enhance service oriented architectures.
The folks over on Sand Hill Road appear to have seen the light on this as well. Tom Ilube, CEO of UK-based Garlik, a privacy startup that uses semantic technology to monitor personal data use online, said that two years ago, VCs often were unfamiliar with the Semantic Technology concept and sent him on his way. These days, that's rarely the case.
"I've talked to half a dozen VCs in the last 24 hours," Sorley said. "There's definitely a lot of interest."
The presence of so many large IT vendors also suggests that semantic technology may be absorbed into larger product suites at companies like BEA, Oracle and IBM.
However, "Web 3.0" probably won't find a pure expression in any one application, in the way that the NCSA Mosaic Web browser provided an "ah ha" moment for the original World Wide Web, or Friendster and Wikipedia distilled the concept of "Web 2.0." Instead, Soley thinks that Semantic technology will work its way into existing SOA deployments and enterprise data integration efforts as an enabling technology behind the scenes.
"Semantic technology is an enabling technology. Things like OWL and RDF and UML as the modelling language gives you an infrastructure. But that's just enabling technology. What we need on top are standards about how can I can capture it and reuse it and optimize it. The focus should be on the business strategy not the technology," he said.
Still, this year's show may be remembered as the moment when Semantic technology and the Semantic Web finally put on a tie (and shoes) and got real.
"In two years you are going to see panels of all end users talking about successes that they rolled out. They'll be saying 'We needed semantic integration to plug together two biz processes that hadn't been plugged together before. Sure there was a human part to that, but we got (return on investment) much more rapidly because had better descriptions of business processes."