You’ve probably read a couple of hundred remembrances and memorials to Steve Jobs in the last day. Don’t worry – this little blog isn’t going to rehash each of his amazing achievements.
Rather, perhaps the sad news of his passing might provide an opportunity to reflect on what it means to innovate, and what it means to be an innovator. Apple’s well-known mantra – Jobs’ coaxing of his fans to “think different” – isn’t just something we’ve seen played out in the design of that company's products, or in the sheer genius Jobs had for tapping into the zeitgeist, turning it around, and building a business model out of it.
Certainly those are the most obvious fruits to most people. But the work the Semantic Web community is doing exemplifies the "think different" attitude every day. That's true of products like Apple's Siri that bring some (now) in-house semantic smarts to Jobs’ creations, as well as a host of others whose creators hope to harness new opportunities from Jobs’ tablet revolution.
Witness the burst of personalized mobile news, entertainment, social networking and other content apps from companies such as Evri, News360, Zite (recently acquired by CNN), and Flipboard, via its acquisition of The Ellerdale Project. Just in the last few months we’ve also heard about iPad products such as FirstRain, a semantic app that lets businesses understand market developments; Dragon Go!, a voice recognition tool that combines AI and NLP to accomplish tasks such as finding restaurants (in case you prefer an option to Siri); and software from IntelliVocab and WolframAlpha that leverage semantic technologies in the service of learning applications.
And even that’s just a starter list. My colleague Eric Franzon tells me that at the SemTechBiz UK event last week in London, it actually became a running joke that presenters were obliged to have an "iPad slide" – that is, some slide that showed an app, some data, or a product on an iPad.
Of course, the iPad apps represent just one facet of how Semantic Web technologies are doing what all good innovations do – and that is to make a difference in our lives.
There are plenty of other companies and academics trying to exploit semantic web technologies and Linked Data to drive innovations in how we communicate our pastimes and our passions to our friends (ala Facebook’s plans for the OpenGraph protocol); how we plan our trips (from TripIt – did we mention there’s now an iPad app for that, too? – to El Viajero); how we find on the web the information we need in our daily lives (via RDFa, microdata and microformat semantic markup); and how we can create greater transparency and linkages across government data that not only can make government operations more efficient but the citizenry better informed (I love iTunes as much as the next guy, but really there’s no comparison in terms of potential benefits for the Republic.)
Beyond this, there’s a growing contingent of applications for business purposes that depend on semantic technologies, which could have a direct or indirect impact on average consumers – from delivering more targeted ads to helping combine data that could lead to advances in medical treatments.
While the “thinking different” that’s behind all these efforts (and more!) may not be as obvious to consumers as a tablet’s touch-screen piano keyboard, it’s there just the same. And it likely will add up to an even greater impact on the world our children will grow up in. As for why this aspect of thinking differently isn’t always obvious to consumers, well, much of it is probably due to the fact that, ultimately, this is all back-end stuff. Companies often even argue that they’re not interested in promoting the semantic aspect of their products, just the end results.
Makes sense. But there’s something to be said about the innovator’s role not just in coming up with the good ideas, but in making the world go "oooh" and "aaaah" at them, too, as Jobs did so well. The Semantic Web community has in its favor incredibly brilliant people and wonderful guiding lights. But maybe having a few more real showmen (or women) wouldn’t hurt, either.
Someone who will step right up there on stage and say things like, “This is landmark stuff. I can't overestimate it!” And the best part is that, like Jobs, they'll say it with belief, with conviction, and with the full force of their passions.