The 3.0 moniker has its critics. Miller himself, like many in his research community, frowns at the idea of applying old-fashioned software release numbers to a Web that evolves continually and on many fronts. Yet even skeptics acknowledge the advent of something qualitatively different. Early versions of technologies that meet Markoff’s definition are being built into the new online TV service Joost. They’ve been used to organize Yahoo’s food section and make it more searchable. They’re part of Oracle’s latest, most powerful database suite, and Hewlett-Packard has produced open-source tools for creating Semantic Web applications. Massive scientific databases, such as the Creative Commons-affiliated Neurocommons, are being constructed around the new ideas, while entrepreneurs are readying a variety of tools for release this year.
The next wave of technologies might ultimately blend pared-down Semantic Web tools with Web 2.0’s capacity for dynamic user-generated connections. It may include a dash of data mining, with computers automatically extracting patterns from the Net’s hubbub of conversation. The technology will probably take years to fulfill its promise, but it will almost certainly make the Web easier to use.
“There is a clear understanding that there have to be better ways to connect the mass of data online and interrogate it,” says Daniel Waterhouse, a partner at the venture capital firm 3i. Waterhouse calls himself skeptical of the “Web 3.0” hyperbole but has invested in at least one Semantic Web-based business, the U.K. company Garlik. “We’re just at the start,” he says. “What we can do with search today is very primitive.”
Melvil Dewey and the Vision of a New Web
For more than a decade, Miller has been at the center of this slow-cresting technological wave. Other names have been more prominent–Web creator Tim Berners-Lee is the Semantic Web’s most visible proselytizer, for example. But Miller’s own experiences trace the technology’s history, from academic halls through standards bodies and, finally, into the private sector.
In the often scruffy Web world, the 39-year-old Miller has been a clean-cut exception, an articulate and persuasive technological evangelist who looks less programmer than confident young diplomat. He’s spent most of his professional life in Dublin, OH, far from Silicon Valley and from MIT, where he continues to serve as a research scientist. But it’s no accident that Zepheira is based in this Columbus suburb, or that Miller himself has stayed put. Dublin is a hub of digital library science, and as the Semantic Web project has attempted to give order to the vast amounts of information online, it has naturally tapped the expertise of library researchers here.
Miller joined this community as a computer engineering student at Ohio State University, near the headquarters of a group called the Online Computer Library Center (OCLC). His initial attraction was simple: OCLC had the largest collection of computers in the vicinity of Ohio State. But it also oversees the venerable Dewey Decimal System, and its members are the modern-day inheritors of Melvil Dewey’s obsession with organizing and accessing information.
Dewey was no technologist, but the libraries of his time were as poorly organized as today’s Web. Books were often placed in simple alphabetical order, or even lined up by size. Libraries commonly numbered shelves and assigned books to them heedless of subject matter. As a 21-year-old librarian’s assistant, Dewey found this system appalling: order, he believed, made for smoother access to information.