To be honest, I'm pretty confused about the semantic Web, and judging from what I've read, I don't think I'm alone. The definition seems a bit fluid, the promise too surreal.
I guess I shouldn't be surprised, given that the semantic Web is Web 3.0 -- and we've only just settled on a definition for Web 2.0.
So, I was interested to learn from this ZDNet post by Paul Miller that semantic Web is all about ... drumroll please ... integration. Specifically, data integration.
Miller's post is a synopsis of a recent interview he did with Sir Tim Berners-Lee, who's better known for inventing the World Wide Web. He's also director of the W3C and, according to Wikipedia, he's one of the first second-generation computer scientists, which is a pretty rare distinction in and of itself.
Millers asked Berners-Lee about a Scientific America article presenting the semantic Web as a sort of artificial-intelligence-meets-My-Girl-Friday, capable of coordinating the calendars of different people to book an appointment with a nearby medical specialist.
Frankly, this example -- like most examples of how the semantic Web might work -- strikes me as ridiculous. And apparently, it is, because Berners-Lee acknowledged the concept described in the article is "too sci-fi" for what really exists today.
But that doesn't mean the semantic Web won't be useful -- or disruptive, according to Berners-Lee:
"In fact, the gain from the Semantic Web comes much before that. So maybe we should have written about enterprise and intra-enterprise data integration and scientific data integration. So, I think, data integration is the name of the game. That's happening, it's showing benefits. Public data as well; public data is happening and it is providing the fodder for all kinds of mashups."
Miller's synopsis about this fascinating interview is well worth reading, because he provides a nice summary of the interview, plus context and useful links.
But don't skip the full Q&A, which is available as a transcript or an podcast, because Berners-Lee does a wonderful job of explaining the semantic Web as a real technology -- as opposed to the pie-in-the-sky stuff we've been sold thus far. For example, the interview offers insight into why companies will want to expose their data for the semantic Web. Here's a hint: Remember when you thought a Web page should just have your brick-and-mortar store's address and you didn't dare post prices or product information online, lest your competition see it?
This is the first interview I've seen that made the semantic Web seem like it might be useful in the real world. That said, I must caution that the interview doesn't do much to justify investing in semantic Web technology. For most organizations -- particularly private companies -- the semantic Web business case remains in the realm of science fiction.