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The Semantic Web, explained

by Edd Dumbill -- 2000/11/02

Edd Dumbill has taken a shot at the difficult question "What is the Semantic Web?" and gives an unusually clear answer to this deeply complex topic.

While the creation of the Semantic Web lies at the heart of the W3C's mission, number two in its list of goals, discussions of the Semantic Web often seem to run in circles, as developers of different stripes paint the vision and even the toolbox quite differently. Tim Berners-Lee, creator of the World Wide Web and the visionary behind the Semantic Web, has published a "draft" (not an official W3C working draft), describing itself as "a road map for the future, an architectural plan untested by anything except thought experiments," but this fragment and the discussion in Berners-Lee's Weaving the Web have left a lot of people wondering how this vision might actually come to pass.

While Dumbill's piece is not an official W3C statement on the nature of the Semantic Web, it is a clear-headed explanation of how some of the parts the W3C is creating might eventually fit together to form "technologies for enabling machines to make more sense of the Web, with the result of making the Web more useful for humans."

Dumbill notes the disdain many developers have for the Semantic Web, but also finds hope for the vision it offers:

"Some XML developers have a "well-formed" prejudice against, as they cheerily call it, the "Pedantic Web" because of the strong links with RDF (not everyone's favorite technology) and the definite view taken on URIs. But to perceive the SW only in this light would be a mistake. Technical peeves aside, the value of the Semantic Web is to solve real problems in communication. First and foremost this means radically improving our ability to find, sort, and classify information: an activity that takes up a large part of our time."

Dumbill goes on to examine the intersections between XML, XHTML, CSS, XSL, and RDF where semantic information - information which identifies meaning - may emerge for ready processing, and discusses a number of projects that may move this vision toward a more concrete reality.

Edd Dumbill is an editor of WriteTheWeb.