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New Research Helps Executives Get Engaged With the Semantic Web

By   /  January 25, 2010  /  No Comments

Interest in the Semantic Web and its possibilities for business is building every day. Many tech-savvy business leaders and IT execs are eager to explore the area in greater depth. The Executive’s Quick Start Guide to Web 3.0 and the Semantic Web, a new report from Semantic Web Research, a division of WebMediaBrands (which publishers this blog), aims to help them get up to speed.

The SemanticWeb Blog spoke to the author of the report, Mills Davis, founder and managing director of Project10X, a research consultancy specializing in next wave semantic technologies, solutions, and business models, about the research. (The report is the first in a series, and you can find out more about that here )

SemanticWeb Blog: You talk in the new report, Executive’s Quick Start Guide to Web 3.0 and the Semantic Web, about the massive shift the next wave of the Internet represents in the coming decade. You paint a future world of ubiquitous computing, connected things, agents and services, and talk about the changes that will shape this — continuous and autonomous communication, massive scale processing, and a dramatic decentralization of control from the more centralized models that have defined everything from enterprise coordination to security. Do you believe most businesses understand how the Semantic Web and semantic technologies are critical for meeting the challenges this future creates, and seizing its opportunities?

Davis: It depends on your time horizon. Some businesses, government agencies, and non-profits are already quite engaged. There are plenty of companies that don’t get it yet, too. New companies aren’t waiting. At Project 10X we’ve been working with some startups—and not necessarily technology plays—that are semantic from the ground up. For example, there’s one group in the health and wellness space whose whole business approach is heavily semantic, but not in a way that places demands on customers or suppliers to learn new technology.

They’re using semantics to enable a dynamic Internet service network that grows, evolves. The business reason is that semantic technology gives them a way of automating network plumbing, to reduce costs, deal with the dynamics of complexity, and speed up their processes so they can grow faster. Another thing they use semantic technologies for is to make the user experience smarter and better for their channel partners and end customers. Semantic technologies give them a way to personalize and mass customize the user experience while at the same time making it affordable and sustainable. In fact, social semantic web applications will play a key role for collaborative work, publishing and communications, community building, and engagement.

The Internet is becoming a web of services. The services all want to be interoperable and connect with each other. At the same time the services and contexts of use are dynamic and changing. So, you need technology with the power and flexibility to handle that. In the next decade we transition to a mobile Internet. Cloud computing-powered services and all the devices that access them will cry out for a core, a glue, and a sense-making that will bind it together, enable it, and make it secure at a more granular level. From the standpoint of infrastructure and provisioning of services, all businesses will move into the semantic era over the next few years. This is the way that the Internet is moving. But the systems and communications economics aren’t the only reason. The best of reasons turns out to be what people like Tom Gruber of Siri and others campaign about — semantic technologies enable us to change the user experience.

SemanticWeb Blog: You identify in the report some broad areas where there’s a more significant uptake of semantic web approaches and semantic technology-driven approaches. Tell us a little about that.

Davis: Yes. Two of these areas are semantic web informatics and enterprise semantic web.

Let’s talk a bit about Semantic Web informatics. The big change is that you represent meanings and what you know about things separately from programs, documents, and data. Now you can process concepts, relationships, and information structures as well as combine them. This can be a game changer for information in terms of its findability through search or query. It can be a game changer for search engine optimization. Another area where semantic technologies can be a game changer is business intelligence. Instead of it just being about the data mining, in retrospect of the transactional information inside a company, business intelligence can interrelate information inside and outside the organization and become real-time, proactive and predictive. This in turn leads to new concepts of operation, and new strategies for businesses that can exploit these new analytics. The shift is this: informatics is moving in the cognitive direction. With semantics we can put our arms around more information, make deeper sense of it, put it into patterns, answer questions–not just return lists–and take that information and utilize it to drive actions to better achieve desired ends.

SemanticWeb Blog: What about Enterprise Semantic Web? You discuss in the report that we’re seeing a broad range of enterprise semantic applications emerge.

Davis: Yes. Semantic technologies are being applied in the enterprise by early adopters just about everywhere you look. Also, established enterprise software vendors are integrating semantic technologies into their product suites for mainsteam deployment.

What’s interesting is that the major established players are incorporating these technologies first where they are least noticeable. To illustrate, not too long ago I was talking with Oracle’s Jeff Pollock about the role of semantics in its products. Jeff told me then that Oracle was adding semantic technologies to their database back end products, but systematically deploying it as part of their middleware offerings. The reason for starting there was twofold. First, Oracle would have a next generation technology for interrelating different product suites. And second, the initial changes would make almost no demands for change on the part of existing customers. I asked why they didn’t start with BI. I reasoned that it’s simpler to do really neat business analytics with semantic modeling whereas if you try to do it with databases you get stacks and stacks of paper with complex joins. But Jeff reminded me that while SQL approaches for complex analytics were demanding, 100,000 database professionals already know SQL. So, given the size of Oracle’s customer base, the likely path forward would be semantics for application and information plumbing and back-end capabilities, then move to the application suites, and then to deploying advanced application capabilities and UI features.

By the way, at SAP the strategy has been similar, although their focus was semantic business process management. The idea was to work in semantic capabilities in ways that add value customers while making modest demands for learning new technology.

SemanticWeb Blog: So how can enterprises, regardless of what applications they use today, manage the impact when it comes – in fact, be prepared for its coming ahead of impact?

Mills: Businesses do need to gauge the impact of new technologies and the extent to which they can adopt them. For example, I had a conversation with an executive at Canadian Bell, which is a relatively large company. At that time he told me that they were exploring how best to introduce semantic technologies. They had built enterprise applications for decades and had portfolios and skill sets to support these legacy systems. They analyzed opportunities to deploy semantic technologies in terms of portfolio and software maturity models. They felt it would not be good for either party to bring in a semantic technology vendor with the greatest solution in the world and put them into a situation where the enterprise would not able to respond to it. Instead, they were choosing target opportunities carefully, based on value and business fit.

Meanwhile, the Internet has reached an inflection point where businesses regardless of their size need to get moving up the learning curve. Some will choose to be more aggressive and that’s great. But, any business can figure out a few practical pilots they can accomplish relatively quickly and at low cost. For example, one thing a business can do with semantics is to expose its core systems and information to enable employees, customers and suppliers to get more value out of them. It’s relatively easy to fashion a quick start program, get a nucleus of people trained and involved with accomplishing a pilot that shows near-term value. The idea is to get going, at zero to low cost, and get enough people on board believing and experiencing the value of a semantic solution, so that it becomes something that you can build on to take another step as an organization. Then be ready to see where else these technologies can fit and deliver value, and take action.

About the author

Jennifer Zaino is a New York-based freelance writer specializing in business and technology journalism. She has been an executive editor at leading technology publications, including InformationWeek, where she spearheaded an award-winning news section, and Network Computing, where she helped develop online content strategies including review exclusives and analyst reports. Her freelance credentials include being a regular contributor of original content to The Semantic Web Blog; acting as a contributing writer to RFID Journal; and serving as executive editor at the Smart Architect Smart Enterprise Exchange group. Her work also has appeared in publications and on web sites including EdTech (K-12 and Higher Ed), Ingram Micro Channel Advisor, The CMO Site, and Federal Computer Week.

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