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The Semantic Enterprise: Are Semantics the Future of Mashups?

Is it just me or does it seem like semantics are trying to compete with mashups for the ‘it’ technology crown of 2008? Tim Berners-Lee reiterated his vision of the Semantic Web. In case you haven’t heard him do this pitch before, here’s the jist of it straight from the interview:

In the semantic web, it's like every piece of data is given a longitude and latitude on a map, and anyone can 'mash' them together and use them for different things.

And perhaps not coincidentally, there was a note in TechCrunch around the same time about Yahoo’s foray into semantics: ‘Yahoo talked about their plans to allow third parties to alter and enhance search results with structured data that may be useful to users’. These comments really stood out in my mashup-centric mind. This all sounds very similar to the everyday definition of a mashup!

Semantics and mashups have the same goal of connect-the-data-dots but have very different ways of going about this complex task. And its in the devilsh details that I have seen enterprise technologists find semantics more problematic than Berners-Lee or the folks at Yahoo. Why? Because ‘Semantic Web’ isn’t the same as ‘Semantic Enterprise. And there's the trap.

I have been enthralled by semantics since the now-distant point in my career where I was responsible for a semantic information integration product. I even had an ex-DARPA PhD on contract to try and help me wrap my head around the not-too-simple subject. And based my experiences I must say that even I can see a myriad of potholes on the road to the Semantic Enterprise. So forgive me if I appear to be putting my foot on the semantic brakes but the pragmatic voice in the back of my head just won’t be quiet. I hate to sound like such a hater on such a great concept. I just have concerns.

First, there's the conceptual underpinnings of semantics itself. It is a complicated topic to say the least. In my old role as semantic pitch-man I used to joke that I could turn off even the most technical audience by using terms and phrases like ‘semantics’ ‘ontology’, and ‘equivalence’. Few understood these tenets and even fewer had any hands-on experience with them. (Perhaps Yahoo’s efforts will begin to change this.)

Of course, even if the fundamental concepts were understood by your every-day enterprise technologist, there’s the state of the semantic technology to consider. In a lab, it is simply amazing to see the power and value of a semantic network. I am sure the folks at Yahoo would agree. In practice, however, it is simply amazing to see how hard they are to create, how complicated they can be to maintain, and how sluggish generally slow they can be in production. I heard one industry pundit remark recently that his efforts at creating semantic ontologies universally led to shouting matches and no unusable results.

Final, there's the practical differences between public, SaaS-type of world Yahoo lives in and the behind-the-firewall world of the enterprise. Practically speaking, there aren’t many Yahoo-caliber solutions available for use inside the enterprise. The best (only?) is perhaps Oracle with its early-stage semantic technologies, with a few niche vendors sprinkled in (like the list of exhibitors at the Semantic Technology Conference.) And while I expect some of these vendors might disagree, it is near impossible to find enterprise-grade semantic solutions that show scale, show adaptability and don’t require a PhD to maintain. They all still have that ‘only for the extreme early adopter’ feel.

Last, I think (actually, I know) one of the biggest potholes on the road to the Semantic Enterprise will be the enterprises themselves. Bringing semantics to the Web, a set of reasonably similar collections of knowledge that are 10-years-old at most, can be imagined through a combination of machines and community efforts (albeit a community the size of Yahoo’s). But inside the typical enterprise you have 35+ years of information and information technologies to get ‘semanticized’ and, SOA efforts not withstanding, it is siloed, often undocumented, and about as disparate in format as you could possibly imagine. And unlike Yahoo, you don’t have armies of semantic-tagging volunteers.

Sure, these issues will be worked through. But it will be a while. In a past post I asked ‘…what does an organization's [information-hungry users] do while it’s waiting for [it’s] SOA effort to reach critical mass...?’. I think the same question applies here. So here’s an attempt at a positive conclusion: Mashups can be the gap-filler between today and the Semantic Enterprise. The results can be just as powerful and, more importantly, mashups are something your enterprise could begin today. Once semantics get their enterprise-kinks worked out, they'll make a valuable source of information for enterprise mashers.

Are semantics the future of information? Of course they are. But when will they fit the world of the enterprise? 2 years? 5? 10? More? Well, that’s the real question, isn’t it? I suggest you mash while you wait.

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