Web creator Tim Berners-Lee says that the next phase of the web, dubbed the Semantic Web, could start making its presence felt at companies in the next couple of years.

He provided 400-plus attendees at the MIT Information Technology Conference with an update on the project, which has been in the works for about five years.

Pre-web data sharing

The basic idea behind the Semantic Web is to better enable sharing of data, including what he calls "pre-web" data such as that hidden in spreadsheets and databases: "It's motivated by the data out there that's not on the web," said Berners-Lee, an MIT researcher and director of the World Wide Web Consortium.

A big part of the effort is making data so that it can be understood better by computers, and the Semantic Web features a collection of technologies designed to support that goal. These include the Resource Description Framework (RDF), which Berners-Lee says "is to data what HTML is to documents". RDF relies on technologies such as XML, universal resource identifiers and less familiar technologies and languages such as OWL and SparQL.

Berners-Lee says getting people to appreciate the goal of the Semantic Web remains challenging, just as it was difficult to get people to understand the World Wide Web before it existed. Given this, his team is reviewing what it can do to get more people on board.

"Data is less exciting with no browser," he said. "We really should have put some emphasis into nice web browsers."

Security challenge

Challenges also remain in securing data that would be available via the Semantic Web, Berners-Lee said. If such challenges can be addressed, he believes companies can get much greater returns on investment on their data, as they will be able to better mine it and use it with trusted partners.

He instructed audience members to get a handle on what data they have over the next couple of years and to start exploiting RDF in modelling their data and sharing some of it with partners.

Road map for change

By 2008, Berners-Lee suggested companies should demand that partners start using RDF to share data that's important to the partnership. By 2009, he advocates building new applications on the Semantic Web base, and by 2011 he thinks companies could be phasing out certain legacy programs to make way for those built natively to work over the Semantic Web.

He joked that conference attendees should not go back and threaten people running legacy apps to get rid of them, noting that many apps probably won't go anyway until some of those people retire.

Berners-Lee cited imaging company Agfa as an early adopter of Semantic Web concepts. Life sciences and healthcare industries are very interested in the Semantic Web too given the mass of data with which they deal. He said having such a vertical market drive the Semantic Web's adoption could be key, just as high-energy particle physicists helped get the World Wide Web cranking.