We are shifting from pushing information to pulling it. As I explained in Part I, this shift is coming to all industries, from medicine to banking to cars and toys. You need to set up your products, services, and information to be pulled. The semantic web is how you will do it. These are the principles of the semantic web:
- Electronic information will become readable by machine as well as humans. At the moment, 99 percent of the documents online are meant for humans to read and interpret. When you type in keywords to a search engine, you see pages that have those keywords in them but not necessarily the answer you are looking for. You have to read the pages yourself to determine whether the content is relevant. Sadly, the information in our databases could help explain what things mean, but that information is lost when HTML pages are created.
- The word semantic means unambiguous. On the web, software can’t easily tell a phone number from a fax number or the title of a book from its subtitle. It’s practically impossible to make apples-to-apples comparisons of products listed in different web sites. In the semantic web, we make documents that are readable to humans but we make all the attributes explicit to machines, so they can understand exactly the same meaning that a human does.
- Data will become findable. We are seeing the emergence of central repositories or link-bases that give the exact location of any resource. We do this using unique registered name spaces, rather than the web pages, directories, and dead links we have today. For a great example, see ScienceCommons.org and watch their video.
- Data will be in reusable building blocks. You’ll keep your personal information online in one place and distribute it as necessary, without having to retype it. Imagine contracts and business documents built out of modules that are live and refer back to their original information, so if anything changes, the document updates immediately. There are no more copies—just definitive sources and syndication of data.
- Data will be interoperable. This is what we mean by “linked data in the cloud”: data will be in common formats that can be used by any software system without translation, a far cry from the tower of Babel we have today. The semantic web will be the “Lingua Franca” of business, research, and productivity.
- The Internet is the new platform. Eventually, the Internet and the cloud will become the platform, eliminating the need for Windows, Mac, Palm, Droid, and other application platforms. The web will conquer all and make it vastly cheaper to deploy and maintain software online.
- Devices will be ubiquitous. Smart phones and computers will be replaced by dumb phones and screens that see the net and let you interact with all your data online. These devices will be flat screens from wrist-size (or built into your eyeglasses) to wall size and bigger. And they will be extremely cheap, much cheaper than netbooks, because everything happens online.
- Software will become much more flexible. Adaptive software will be ten times easier to write and thousands of times easier to maintain. Data, not instructions, drives adaptive software. This is a paradigm shift in the way we build and use software, and it is already making its way into commercial use (spam filtering is an example).
- Our economy will edge closer and closer to real time. Using the concepts of the semantic web, we will start pulling information rather than pushing it, which will give us real-time information all the time at much greater scale and much lower price than we have today. The savings are huge—on the order of 20 percent of our entire economy—more than $1 trillion. The book shows examples of how different many industries (and government) will be once we start adopting the principles of the semantic web.
- Search, advertising, and marketing will change dramatically as a result. Because we will design and produce our documents and data according to these principles, keyword search will give way to semantic search. In semantic search, you specify exactly what you’re looking for, and the answers come to you. For example, if you’re looking for a silver Porsche 911 with fewer than 30,000 miles within a 300 mile radius of your home, you’ll see all of them on a map, courtesy of the open semantic web, rather than having to search dozens of databases, typing in the specific keywords each search engine requires. This kind of semantic searching—pulling—will require an entirely different kind of marketing mindset.
- It is a time for governments, standards bodies, and consortia to lead the way. We need world-class standards that can support the trillions of dollars worth of e-commerce and online communication we will need for the 21st century. Fortunately, nonprofits are gearing up to build them. You can learn more at DiscoverRFID and Informationcard.net. Be sure to see the fantastic EU vision video. Learn about XBRL, the standards-based ecosystem that is helping to fix our economic crisis. Laurent Liscia has written an excellent essay on standards and how they evolve.
We have spent the past thirty years going from analog to digital. We’re not done. The next step is to go from digital to semantic, and this transition will take the next twenty years or so. It is already under way.David Siegel is an author, angel investor, and public speaker in New York City. He is the author of four books about the Internet. His latest book, Pull: the Power of the Semantic Web to Transform Your Business explains the shift from pushing information to pulling it, and the impact that will have on business. You can also follow him on Twitter at @pullnews.