Nepali Times
A new web semantics


Imagine having data on the World Wide Web defined and linked in a way so that it can be used not just for display purposes, but also for automation, integration and reuse of data across various applications. All the different devices you may have-microwave oven to mobile phone-integrated in a seamless database. Isn't that wonderful?

The world of web developers and standards groups also thinks so, and is working towards making this vision a reality. In order make this a reality for the web, supporting standards, technologies and policies must be designed to enable machines to make more sense of the Web, and thus making the Web more useful for humans. Facilities and technologies to put machine-understandable data on the Web are rapidly becoming a high priority for many communities. For the web to scale, programs must be able to share and process data even when these programs have been designed totally independently. The web can reach its full potential only if it becomes a place where data can be shared and processed by automated tools as well as by people.

Enter semantic web along with RDF, XML, XSLT, WSDL, UDDI, WAI, DCMI, OIL, ebXML, SOAP, DCML, XTM, OIL, SVG, and more alphabet soup. If you find all these arcane, the people working towards making the web easier to use live with this particular kind of soup. There are seemingly more. In three days, I was exposed to at least 12 new terms-and I already knew the above mentioned.
The future of the web is mostly in the hands of the world body World Wide Web Consortium (W3C). This consortium, including rival industry players like IBM and Microsoft and academics from all over the world, gives the final nod to web standards. They have working committees that discuss and produce drafts for standards. After thorough discussions, these drafts are passed as recommendations, so that developers around the world can follow it, and so can browser makers.

The group is now geared towards making the web an integral part of the people's mind. Tim Berners Lee, W3C Director and the inventor of the web in his opening keynote at the 10th world wide web conference (WWW10) outlined the Web Phase Two, which is all about semantic web and web services. Service is an abstract protocol but technology to deliver it is required. So what technology is going to make it happen?

The greatest thing in the first phase of the web was HTML, the language of web pages. Simpletons may be surprised, but HTML is an unstructured language, meant only for displaying pages. Machines are not able to interpret any data out of HTML. It is not meant for the phase two. Enter XML (eXtensible Markup Language), which as its name signifies is extensible. Now, as Lee and others would like us to believe, the next greatest thing is XML and associated standards. The XML 2.0 standard was declared recommended last week, which will now let hordes of developers to start working with it.

Already, various XML derivatives try to meet specific needs. RDF (Resource Description Framework), as an implementation of XML, is used to put data onto the web in a form that can be processed by machines with less prior arrangement through the use of a common data model and machine-interpretable data schemas. The common underlying XML structure, with a well-defined description framework, lets developers create one set of data to fit all needs.

XSL (Extensible Stylesheet Language), which consists of XSLT (XSL Transformations), XPath (XML Path Language) and XML formatting language, is a language for expressing style sheets. A stylesheet specifies the layout of the particular page. To change the design, a change in the stylesheet is enough. This is currently done using CSS (Cascading Style Sheets), with HTML. In the XML world, XSL will do this work. An XSL stylesheet specifies the presentation of a class of XML documents by describing how an instance of the class is transformed into an XML document that uses the formatting vocabulary.

SVG (Scalable Vector Graphics) is a language for describing two-dimensional graphics in XML. Contrary to the now popular JPEG format, SVG drawing can be dynamic and interactive. The DOM (Document Object Model) for SVG includes full XML DOM, allows efficient vector graphics animation via scripts. No need to use heavy "flash" animations.

The semantic Web initiative also is working on SMIL (Synchronised Multimedia Integration Language, pronounced "smile") to impart a TV like multimedia experience on the web. For mobile users CC/PP (Composite Capabilities/Preferences Profiles) is on its way.

There is more alphabet soup, and seemingly many working groups working to create different standards. The notion of the web as a limited, computer-based access to static information will be changed in the future. One of the biggest adopters of XML technology has been IBM. It already provides lots of implementation in software that it provides for downloads, as it re-brands itself as a major service provider for all-from Pop Tate's to Fortune 500 companies. Microsoft's Office XP, the next Office edition is also completely based on XML, so the future for a semantic web is already there. Research is already underway to figure out how these newer technologies can be used to preserve culture, improve social standards and make the web easier. For Nepal what it holds for the future is known.

So what is in store for Nepal's software developers and companies trying to make it big in the world? It seems they are not well placed for the future. A few have just started on XML, but the scope of XML is very large compared to HTML, and not as simple as HTML. Tools will be available only when the technology is tested the world over-it may then be too late for Nepali companies to vie for high-end jobs. Certainly, Nepali developers also need to participate in International conferences, and organise more such events in Nepal. Friedrich Ebert Stiftung is planning an Information Technology, Communication & Development conference in November, and the Computer Association of Nepal (CAN) is planning for the January Infotech conference. But we still need some "techie" conferences, so that even the public at large get their share of the soup.

In 2010, everyone will have a mobile, you can customise the looks of your digital secretary, and you will have a paper less desk (finally) as Keiji Tachikawa, President and CEO of NTT, DoCoMo put it. It's time to
gear up for it!

(11 JAN 2013 - 17 JAN 2013)