Improving user experience, greater availability and more information than ever before – you’d be forgiven for believing that the internet is in its glory days. Yet, three decades after its advent, we still share information the same way we always used to – heaps of data connected by references. Yes, it’s all clickable and yes, XML has been a godsend to structuring data; but to machines, the fundamental problems still remain – what do the heaps of data mean and how is it related to its references?
Those of you in AI or philosophy might be familiar with ontologies. Simply put, an ontology defines the attributes and hierchical classification of objects in a system, and their relations with each other1. For example, a person and a credit card, both with their own distinct attributes and classification, are related by the fact that a person may use a credit card to purchase a product or service. The concept is anything but new, having occupied both Aristotle and Plato as far back as 400 BC (of course, Diners Club wasn’t around back then, but you get the picture).

So what does this have to do with the future of the internet, you might ask. In 1999, Tim Berners-Lee began work on the Semantic Web – a project which aims to bring machine-processable meaning to the data on the internet2. Two of its key propositions released in February 2004 are the Resource Description Framework (RDF) and the more fascinating Web Ontology Language (OWL). And they’re not just theory. Oracle 10g already supports the indexing and querying of RDF triples, Adobe’s open source Extensible Metadata Platform (XMP) enables metadata inclusion in all major Adobe file formats, and Altova SemanticWorks already allows you to author RDF/OWL structures3.

The potential is endless. Imagine logging on to google and asking it to search for a coupe; but instead of returning 85+ million pages, it returns distinct coupe models sorted by the up-to-date prices published on each manufacturer’s website (goodbye and even suggests a sedan on the side. Your browser then steps in and filters the ones it knows you can afford, and even highlights the ones your colleague Jim drives.

Pipe dream? Not really. Google Sets has been around since 2002, and social networking tools such as Hotmail and ICQ have been around for 10 years now. The only problem is that they don’t speak the same language, which is where RDF and OWL come in to the picture. And it won’t be long before car manufacturers start contributing information in the same manner.

For now, here’s one of the simplest steps towards the Semantic Web – the XHTML Friends Network (XFN) microformat. It’ll probably fizzle out by the winter, but at least it transcends the relation-less reference. Hello Wolfe!

  1. Wikipedia (2006), “Ontology (computer science)”, Wikimedia []
  2. Wikipedia (2006), “Semantic Web”, Wikimedia []
  3. Herman, I. (2006), “Semantic Web”, World Wide Web Consortium []