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Computer: Find me the bus to the nearest Starbucks

Just when you were getting used to Web 2.0, the buzz is now about Web 3.0

Globe and Mail Update

By now, you've probably run across the term Web 2.0, often used to refer to Web-based services such as photo-sharing site Flickr or Google's Web-based document-editing service, Google Docs. Both use a variety of technologies—collectively known as Ajax—that allow users to interact with the service without having to download anything.

Such services are also called "social media" because they make it easy for people to interact or collaborate with others. And while many people—including Tim O'Reilly, who is credited with inventing the term—don't think much of the label Web 2.0, it does serve as a kind of shorthand for those kinds of sites.

In a sense, Web 1.0 was the "static" Web. Users could browse through different sites, but there was very little interaction with them, apart from clicking a mouse or perhaps filling in a form. Any more elaborate interaction usually involved either downloading dedicated software or uploading files, or both.

So if Web 1.0 was the static Web and Web 2.0 is the social Web, then what is Web 3.0? Although some would rather not even use the term—including Sir Tim Berners-Lee, who invented the Web as we know it—it's probably safe to say that the next step in the Web's evolution is something called the "semantic" Web.

The semantic Web is a Web constructed so that software can read and understand more about the terabytes of information that appear on the Internet—whether that data is visual or textual or mathematical—and how that data is related. In that way, smart software could reveal relationships that aren't readily apparent to humans, and help to make sense of all that information.

"Think about the files on your PC," Sir Tim told me in a recent interview. "Some of the files are like letters you've written, and you can put them on the Web quite easily. But other files—like your address book—if you put it on the Web, it would just be a big list of people. Same thing with your calendar—just dates and times. But it's not just the names or dates that are important; it's the relationships between the data."

As with most programming, any detailed discussion of the semantic Web quickly becomes incomprehensible, with arcane terms such as resource description framework and XML Schema. But the principle, as described by Berners-Lee, is that every information resource would be described in a kind of meta-language that would make it easy for the data it contains to be sliced, diced, sorted and aggregated in any number of ways. "It's a way of taking the data that's in lots of different systems and connecting it together," Sir Tim says. "And not just connecting it, but realizing that it's part of a community, that there are partners and suppliers and customers who want to see and use it in different ways."

As an example, the Web scientist says, it's easy to find lists of coffee-shop locations, schedules of when a city's buses run, and a calendar that tracks your appointments—but it's not easy to put all that data together and figure out which bus to take on which day if you want to meet a friend for a cup of coffee.

Sir Tim says that one of the places where he sees the most need for such a technology is in medical and scientific research, where vast amounts of data are collected and analyzed, but in many cases are kept in proprietary databases that can't be easily accessed or shared. If they became part of the semantic Web, he says, software could easily find relationships between that data, and make it easier for scientists to solve problems.

"There's a lot of excitement in the life sciences about doing this. Scientists looking for drugs and so on have huge amounts of different sources of data," he says. "They're looking for creative solutions, but not everyone who is working on the problem has access to the right data."

The Web's inventor says that he isn't trying to force everyone to adapt to the semantic Web all at once. Instead, he's taking the same tack he did with the original Web, and starting with the scientific community—in particular the life sciences, where he sees the biggest need—in the hope that after it catches on there, it will become more appealing to a broader group. "There are some interesting parallels" between Web 1.0 and Web 3.0, he says. "In 1990, high-energy physics was where it was at when it came to cool science, and now the life sciences are cool. And they have huge amounts of data and some of the same frustrations I felt that led to me developing the Web."

Anyone who has felt overwhelmed by the oceans of information the Internet contains can sympathize with the Web's creator. With semantic Web tools, those oceans might finally become manageable.

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