Berners-Lee extols Semantic Web at W3C conference

The inventor of the Web wants to see it made into a giant transactional database

World Wide Web inventor Tim Berners-Lee would like to see the global content network he helped develop turn into a giant transactional database.

In a design paper written six years ago, Berners-Lee described his vision of the Semantic Web, an initiative the World Wide Web Consortium (W3C) has been steadily laying the framework for ever since. At the 13th annual World Wide Web Conference, running this week in New York, Berners-Lee devoted a keynote address today to the Semantic Web's rationale and the progress and challenges involved in its creation.

An important milestone for Semantic Web development was passed a few months ago. Two foundational standards, the Resource Description Framework (RDF) and the OWL Web Ontology Language (OWL), became W3C recommendations in February -- a sign the group considers them ready for widespread adoption.

"There was a lot of pain and sweat and tears and discussions and arguments" in getting RDF and OWL to the level of accepted standards, Berners-Lee said. He said he expects Phase 2, now in progress, to be more fun. "I hope it'll be very exciting," Berners-Lee said. "We'll start to get more satisfaction back from actually building applications and seeing them connect together."

The aim of the Semantic Web is to add metadata to information placed online to allow it to be readable by machines. That context would enable automation of a variety of interactions. For instance, an online catalog could connect to a user's order history and preferences and to a calendar to automatically pick available times for a product delivery.

Projects involving Semantic Web technologies are already under way at several organizations, including The Boeing Co., which is exploring semantics-based applications for information and application integration, interoperability and knowledge management. Adobe Systems Inc. has built into its products Adobe XMP (Extensible Metadata Platform), an RDF-based metadata system that links contextual information with content files.

Partially as a proof of concept for the Semantic Web, conference organizers are at work on a Web archive of photos from the current and past gatherings, complete with metadata annotations. The project Web site is

Berners-Lee encouraged attendees to Semantic Web-enable anything they can online. "We're going to have to bootstrap things in the short term," he said.

While most of his speech focused on Semantic Web development, Berners-Lee touched briefly on other Web infrastructure issues, including the push by the Internet Corporation for Assigned Names and Numbers to expand the Web's pool of top-level domains (TLD).

Berners-Lee said he's wary of the fragmentation that comes with TLD expansion and prefers to see domains added only when they're needed for innovative social or technical systems. He said he's unimpressed by many of the social additions under consideration, such as .xxx for pornography and .mobi for content optimized for mobile devices. Definitions vary on what counts as adult content, and the needs of mobile devices are varied and constantly evolving, he said. Berners-Lee suggested that the TLDs are aimed at solving problems better addressed through content filters and affinity portals.

He also praised the work done on advancing several past W3C initiatives, like Cascading Style Sheets, a standard now widely used.

"It's worth celebrating that, actually, we've come a long way with some of this stuff," Berners-Lee said.

Copyright © 2004 IDG Communications, Inc.

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