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July 5, 2005

Grokster Decision Leads to Web 2.0?

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Posted by Alan Wexelblat

Last week's Cringely column is another of those "What's on Bob's mind" exercises, combining two widely varying topics - in this case the Grokster decision and the so-called "Web 2.0" or semantic Web.

Cringely's main point seems to be that the intention standard, on which many people have focused (see for example discussion at SCOTUSblog, or various postings by Derek Slater at Deep Links) is irrelevant. It's irrelevant because the true successor to Grokster won't be BitTorrent or any of its ilk (see Donna's pointer to Ernie Miller's summary on BitTorrent).

The true successor, says Bob, will be an API-based service built from pieces offered by different organizations, so different from Grokster that there won't even be an entity to which the intention standard could be applied. Erm, maybe.

Cringely leaves out a lot of steps in this chain, one of which is that the semantic Web project is in its fourth year and shows no signs of disturbing the huge growth of the WWW as we know it. There's every reason to believe that the semantic Web will remain a pipe dream for many years to come, and file-sharing will likely continue to evolve in the meantime. You can also bet that the intention standard will be tested in plenty of court cases soon. My personal feeling is that the Cartel will take this as carte blanche to go on deep fishing expeditions into the business model of anyone they don't overtly control, under the guise of trying to show "intention."

Second, the open API construction that Cringely is talking about is coming to pass in the guise of service-oriented architectures (SOAs). These SOAs are built using XML-based protocols such as SOAP that may be useful in the semantic Web, but aren't really the same thing any more than TCP/IP is the same as email.

Cringely's best quote comes at the start of the column, where he opines that

Depending on who you are, this decision probably appeared to be wise or unwise, fair or unfair, good or bad, and either chilling for technical innovation, or...well, chilling for technical innovation.

At least he got that part right.

(Full disclosure: at least one of my friends works at W3C on the Semantic Web team. No offense intended either way.)

Comments (3) + TrackBacks (0) | Category: Interesting People


1. jtw on July 6, 2005 12:29 PM writes...

Full disclosure: I used to work at W3C on the semantic web (SW) team.

The various SW standards are just really maturing - especially the search language SPARQL - and the impact is just starting to be felt in some domains, especially life sciences. Remember that the Web didn't disrupt the Internet for a long time. Until it did. It came from users that needed to share information in a different way than gopher, archie, and ftp. SW uptake will similarly come from those who need a richer connection between elements than SOA provides.

For example, you might find inside a pharmaceutical company's decision process: rich relationships among genes, proteins, chemicals, business processes, government regulations, patients, doctors, marketing and sales staff. Stitching together APIs ain't going to cut it. That's why Merck has joined the W3C and it's why the NIH is asking for "concept based queries" in contract proposals. The SW is taking off in science, much as the WWW took off originally in high energy physics.

Under the hoods of stuff that normal people use, RSS 1.0 is chock full of semantic web information. And Creative Commons' copyright licenses (my current employer) have put millions of pieces of metadata online in semantic web formats. Yahoo now uses RDF to search for our metadata - "find me songs I can remix" and so forth. There's a plugin for firefox that lets you map craigslist onto google maps (it's called Piggy Bank and is part of the simile project at MIT) just like Cringeley says you'll be able to do in the future, although this works today.

I'm also pretty sure that we'll see something along the API stitching that you mention - but that in the life sciences it'll be stitching bottom-up tagging to top-down ontologies. Already seeing that in a traditional, human-mediated sense - the biological norm was to let everyone call a gene whatever they wished. Still is the norm. But there's a serious need, for serious researchers, to map all 50 names for a gene into the ontologies that describe gene function (and therefore standardize on how to "tag" a piece of DNA as being a gene with a described function, location, etc.).

That's already been made usable in semantic web format as well, using scrapers that generate such information just from the basic website.

So I would argue that, in fact, the semantic web as seen by W3C is indeed well on its way. It just hasn't made that jump outside of its initial domains yet. But wait til the first real semantic web browser hits...

these opinions are my own, not those of the w3c or of creative commons :-)

Permalink to Comment

2. Andyu on July 8, 2005 4:54 PM writes...

I wanted to let you know that I had blogged on this yesterday, with the most germane part reading as follows, jumping off from jtw's comment:

But will there be a Semantic Web browser (or, more responsively to jtw, will it lead the charge of conversion, or will it take advantage of the conversion after the geeks have led the way?

I'm of the opinion that it will be somewhere in the middle. Somebody (or somebodies) will inevitably see the SemWeb as an opportunity to either chip away at the Big Browser Boys' market share, or, alternatively, tweak their collective tails -- just because then can (presumably using, say, FireFox), and the Big Boys will respond not to the opportunity, but defensively.

You can read Tim Berners-Lee's most recent opinions on this subject (which can briefly be summarized as "been there, done this before; just be patient) in the June CSB: The Semantic Web: an Interview with Tim Berners-Lee. My own, somewhat more subdued opinions are in the Editorial from the same issue: Web of Dreams'. In brief, I'm more in agreement with jtw (his Semantic browser observation aside) and Tim than Alan, but still believe that we have a few years to wait before the SemWeb wagon really gets rolling.

Assuming that it's still to early to call it all a question of "when" and not "whether,", I think that one of the big "ifs" relates to whether the ad hoc, neural, viral world of tagging and other shortcuts that people will think up will absorb all of the energy, which is closer to Cringely's point (which, you may recall, is where this all began). Perhaps the appetite for more rigid and demanding Semantic approaches will be limited to highly structured, highly disciplined areas like health sciences, leading to two parallel Webs: a stuffy, precise, and more reliable Semantic one, and an anarchic, freewheeling, morphing one that rollicks along, trying out all kinds of interesting experiments that may (or may not) eventually settle into something we can't even imagine at this point in time. Personally, that sounds like not such a bad future to me.

Either way, we'll see. But best not to be in too much of a hurry to find out.

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3. jtw on July 9, 2005 5:13 PM writes...

I tend to agree with the "two webs" concept, although i think they will indeed be a single web, with different neighborhoods. What i like about rdf/owl is that you can flexibly map between two such worlds - if you've got a formal ontology, that's fine, but if your ontology is evolving or changing, it's nice to be able to draw relationships on more of an adhoc basis. I could rather easily write owl relations from a gene "tag" (in the chaotic sense of tagging) to that gene's formal name in GenBank, which is connceted into formal ontologies as the canonical URI, thereby connecting the two worlds. It's precisely that stitching function that makes the SW approach so powerful to my eyes...

Now, the hard part is how to navigate such a world. How do you dial in the chaos from the cool gleaming halls of ontology, and vice versa? How will my Mom deal with it? It's going to require more software on the client side than browsing, and much thought on UI.


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