Why we will win

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People keep saying that the Semantic Web is just a hype. That we are just an unholy chimaera of undead AI researchers talking about problems solved by the database guys 15 years ago. And that our work will never make any impact in the so called real world out there.

As I stated before: I'm a believer. I'm even a catholic, so this means I'm pretty good at ignoring hard facts about reality in order to stick to my beliefs, but it is different in this case: I slowly start to comprehend why Semantic Web technology will prevail and make life better for everyone out there. It' simply the next step in the IT RevoEvolution.

Let's remember the history of computing. Shortly after the invention of the abacus the obvious next step, the computer mainframe, appeared. Whoever wanted to work with it, had to learn to use this one mainframe model (well, the very first ones were one-of-a-kind machines). Being able to use one didn't necessarily help you using the other.

First the costs for software development were negligible. But slowly this changed, and Fred Brooks wrote down his experience with creating the legendary System/360 in the Mythical Man-Month (a must-read for software engineers), showing how much has changed.

Change was about to come, and it did come twofold. Dennis Ritchie is to blame for both of them: together with Ken Thompson he made Unix, but in order to make that, he had to make a programming language to write Unix in, this was C, which he made together with Brian Kernighan (this account is overly simplified, look at the history of Unix for a better overview).

Things became much easier now. You could port programs in a simpler way than before, just recompile (and introduce a few hundred #IFDEFs). Still, the masses used the Commodore 64, the Amiga, the Atari ST. Buying a compatible model was more important than looking at the stats. It was the achievement of the hardware development for the PC and of Microsoft to unify the operating systems for home computers.

Then came the dawning of the age of World Wide Web. Suddenly the operating system became uninteresting, the browser you use was more important. Browser wars raged. And in parallel, Java emerged. Compile once, run everywhere. How cool was that? And after the browser wars ended, the W3Cs cries for standards became heard.

That's the world as it is now. Working at the AIFB, I see how no one cares what operating system the other has, be it Linux, Mac or Windows, as long as you have a running Java Virtual Machine, a Python interpreter, a Browser, a C++ compiler. Portability really isn't the problem anymore (like everything in this text, this is oversimplified).

But do you think, being OS independent is enough? Are you content with having your programs run everywhere? If so, fine. But you shouldn't be. You should ask for more. You also want to be independent of applications! Take back your data. Data wants to be free, not locked inside an application. After you have written your text in Word, you want to be able to work with it in your Latex typesetter. After getting contact information via a Bluetooth connection to your mobile phone, you want to be able to send an eMail to the contact from your web mail account.

There are two ways to achieve this: the one is with standard data formats. If everyone uses vCard-files for contact information, the data should flow freely, shouldn't it? OpenOffice can read Word files, so there we see interoperability of data, don't we?

Yes, we do. And if it works, fine. But more often than not it doesn't. You need to export and import data explicitly. Tedious, boring, error prone, unnerving. Standards don't happen that easily. Often enough interoperability is achieved with reverse engineering. That's not the way to go.

Using a common data model with well defined semantics and solving tons of interoperability questions (Charset, syntax, file transfer) and being able to declare semantic mappings with ontologies - just try to imagine that! Applications being aware of each other, speaking a common language - but without standard bodies discussing it for years, defining it statically, unmoving.

There is a common theme in the IT history towards more freedom. I don't mean free like in free speech, I mean free like in free will.

That's why we will win.

Originally published on Semantic Nodix

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