World Wider Web
ACW - November 18-24 2002 Page 17
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The World Wide Web has changed the way we do business. But there is something missing from the equation. We have more data than ever, with everything from sales records to engineering specs available online, but finding the needle in the Web haystack is not getting easier.

The trick may be to build a new Web based on the meanings and syntax of our language but invisible to the humans who speak it. This world, dubbed the Semantic Web by the researchers and academics who are planning it, is meant for machines, not people. The goal is to allow computers to process and move words and data, as well as understand them.

"In the last seven years, the Web has been very focused on giving value to human eyeballs,"  says Prabhakar Raghavan, CTO at knowledge-management software company Verity. "Over the next seven years, the interesting eyeballs will belong to computers."

To be accurate, the Semantic Web is an extension of today's Web. Championed by the father of the World Wide Web, Tim Berners Lee, it will probably take the form of specialised tags inserted inside HTML documents that identify the page and help computers understand what it is about.

Weren't XML and other Web services supposed to let computers talk directly to one another, you might ask? That's true, but the Semantic Web is being built to push that concept further.

XML by itself lets machines identify information within narrowly defined boundaries for example, go to Web sites and download something labelled as "price" : But a Semantic Web service knows that "price" can be the same thing as "cost", that it can be measured in "dollars", and take the form of "$X,XXX.XX".

The reason is that at the heart of the Semantic Web are dictionaries that draw direct relationships between terms. The Semantic Web knows magazines are also called publications, that people work for a company, and so on. Any program running a semantic search would see the tags in a document and access a dictionary to define them and figure out relationships before proceeding-like when you type www.informationweek.com in your browser, and the program accesses a dictionary, or name server, to find out what computer actually hosts that site.

Business benefits
The ability to find information more easily should provide distinct returns for businesses.
  Autonomy makes software that uses pattern-matching algorithms to scan text, identifying key ideas based on the placement or frequency of words that are associated with certain concepts.

"The Semantic Web is an interesting evolutionary step, but it's dealing with a problem that we've been addressing for years now the increasing amount of unstructured data within businesses," says Ron Kolb, director of technology strategy.

Faculty and students at the R.H. Smith School of Business at the University of Maryland are in the final stages of testing an integrated portal using Autonomy's software.

Students and faculty identify a number of concepts and ideas related to their course of study. Next, automated agents search data sources on the Web, crawling through legal news, filings, and so on, reading each document and quickly summarising its content.

Should a document seem relevant to someone's research, the software will make it available to that person through the custom portal. Though the school is just finishing testing, the portal has already proven beneficial.

CIO Sandor Boyson says: "It's increased our ability to provide support to our faculty and be at the cutting edge in terms of research." Though he is experimenting with emerging portal technology, Boyson does not expect much from the Semantic Web soon. "To talk about this sort of gigantic interoperability is premature," he says.

Setting the standard
The Semantic Web is far from ready for wide use, and significant obstacles need to be overcome before anyone can see the benefits.

Like any computing environment, in order for the Semantic Web to succeed, a critical mass of users and vendors need to agree on standards and protocols for how it will work.

Most technology managers are familiar with XML, a tagging language that defines data in Web pages and documents. It will be the first step toward making the Semantic Web work, acting as the underlying standard for writing tags.

But this does not mean that because XML is involved, the Semantic Web is just a fancy name for Web services. It is more of a way for businesses to continue leveraging and benefiting from XML, says IBM's Mattos.

Web services will remain a piece of the larger Semantic Web but not the whole, he says. Beyond XML, developers must agree on a common vocabulary or framework to define different semantic concepts.

So why should technology managers pay attention? Enigmatec's Johnson-Watt says IT will be expected to identify opportunities it creates.

IT departments "are lightning rods for the business. And if the Semantic Web is delivered, it will mark a major change in the way businesses think", he says.

The World Wide Web Consortium's Semantic Web lead, Eric Miller, says business technology executives should try early elements to see if the consortium is on the right track in developing useful business tools. "Take them for a test drive, give feedback, help explain where you ran into problems," Miller says.

"It sounds a little altruistic, but we believe all ships are going to rise on this, and the sooner they rise, the more financially beneficial it will be for all. Try to realise that your data is far more important than the application that accesses it."

The Semantic Web is one of those business-changing ideas that leaders need to start getting their minds around today, LiveWire Logic's Lester says.

"It's hard to imagine, in much the same way that 10 years ago it would have been hard for us to imagine the impact that the Web has had on commerce," he says.  "But this is going to have a similar impact."