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Towards Webtop

July 25th, 2008

by Jie Bao

Some of our Tetherless World researchers including me have just written a short paper to sell the idea of constructing a “webtop” using semantic technologies. In short, a webtop is a desktop on the web, that does similar jobs such as managing files, doing word processing, managing contacts, scheduling tasks, emailing, etc. Please see some examples of webtops with pretty GUIs.

Almost one decade ago, there has been hot for a while for the concept of “network computer”. At that time, a network computer means some low-end computer with limited storage and computational capacity that relying on the network to get great power. The webtop idea reminds me of network computer as they, while are different in many aspects, share the same idea of powering users with networked infrastructure. Ten years ago, this vision was tested with physical computers but largely failed, while today, with the advance of technologies, is revived by allowing users to create virtual computers that only exist on the websphere. I have many reasons to believe this time it will not only survive, but also prevail.

One reason is from my personal experience. From about two years ago, I stopped installing many software that have been with me for many years: Encarta is replaced by Wikipedia.com, Outlook is replaced by Gmail, MS Street is replaced by Google Maps, MS Word is replaced by writing in wiki, Powerpoint is replaced by online latex writing with the Beamer package, among a long list of other things. Browser is the application I stayed for more than 80% of time when I’m on my computers. There is indeed a strong need for me to organize all such online applications and data — simply bookmarking is barely a solution. I need something that can organize them, enable me quick access to them, and last but not least, pretty and neat. A webtop does exactly those things.

How semantic technologies help in providing a webtop? Actually, long before the term “ontology” getting popular, users are already creating ontologies on daily bases: email classification, creating file folder trees, grouping contacts or naming a photo as “Wedding picture at Troy”, all those efforts are creating relations between things or annotating a “meaning” to an entity. With semantic technologies, those relations and annotations can be made explicit so that data can be more easily managed and queried. For example, I may query that “find all 2005 photos of my friends”, or “show all meetings (even if they are not called meeting, such as “briefing”) in the past month”. A webtop based on semantic technologies will make such an ability universal to any application on its top.

There have been controversies about semantic web ever since the term is coined. I think this is partly because the semantic web community as a whole, failed to provide enough end-user friendly tools that can do something helpful in daily life. I wish to see more tools to help daily web activities: semantic email, semantic blog, semantic calender, semantic abstract of news (a little more than RSS), tagging files (picture, mp3,…) with taxonomy, etc. Even more important, to survive, such an application should never ask users to learn RDF or anything needs more than 3 minutes to understand. Bring such applications together, it’s a webtop. I believe something like this is one of the killer apps the community has long been waiting for.

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  1. Paul Lin
    July 25th, 2008 at 07:32 | #1

    Very visionary: “Even more important, to survive, such an application should never ask users to learn RDF or anything needs more than 3 minutes to understand. Bring such applications together, it’s a webtop.”

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  2. Mike Smith
    July 25th, 2008 at 10:23 | #2

    Interesting post.

    Semantic technologies aside, it seems odd that your webtop examples don’t include the Google Docs application suite. Does it fit or diverge from your definition of what a webtop application is?

    On semantic technologies, there are existing *desk*top applications doing much of what you’ve suggested. The photo app I use lets me associate pictures with a class hierarchy and tracks metadata, most office suites have included metadata and change history for some time, and desktop search applications are beginning to facilitate good unified search of the disparate parts, some even using RDF (http://beagle-project.org/About). Is the public, HTTP based web an required component? If so, is this a call for existing webtop apps to catch up with their desktop ancestors, or something more?

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  3. July 25th, 2008 at 12:40 | #3

    It’d be worth doing an autopsy here on Aurora, the Mozilla/Netscape RDF-based webtop. This was basically the first RDF app (it began as MCF before MCF mutated into RDF at W3C)…

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  4. August 13th, 2008 at 03:09 | #4

    It is the killer app, I can assure you. I have been working on these apps for the last five years.

    Well, I wonder why you only wrote a short paper about this and miss your basic research. Googling for “desktop semantic web” gives you all the hits.

    The idea has been there in Chandler (OSAF) by Mitch Kapor, in Haystack (MIT), DBIN (Giovanni Tummarello), OpenIris.org, http://www.gnowsis.org (my own project), nepomuk.semanticdesktop.org (I am also involved in that) (and thats only the working open-source software I can type in 30 seconds, for papers, you find much much much much more)

    All these projects are there since 5 years or longer.

    Another commenter mentioned Beagle, which is old-school and not-cool-enough: Google for Beagle++ for a fully Semantiified version of Beagle from L3S.de, and why the heck did you not mention KDE 4.1, which has a complete desktop search engine based on RDF, allowing unified tagging and sparql and all the wonders on your desktop?

    If this is news for anyone here: KDE4.0 moved to RDF and SPARQL for metadata. It took us a lot of discussion work and coding to achieve that, build upon it.

    Do some research, and ping me then, I bet you can come up with something cool on your way and I am interested to keep track of anything coming up here. Of course, we are on track to build a semantic webtop… :-)

    Generally, google for “Semantic Desktop” and you are on track with the state of the art, anything you find there will wander off and merge with the web, webtop is a nice buzzword for that, we picked “semantic desktop” in 2003 as a buzzword to keep track of all projects and people. They do the same but call themselves differently (you know, pre web2.0 area, different buzzwords)

    of course, I am biased because I am deeply occupied working on all this :-)

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  5. August 13th, 2008 at 17:18 | #5

    Dear Leo

    Thank you for pointing out all the semantic desktop work. I have tried Haystack back in 2004. There have also been semantic desktop workshops for a few years, it is hard to ignore such work.

    I agree that semantic desktop and (semantic) webtop are closely related. I can imagine that many semantic desktop technologies can be borrowed in building webtops. On the other hand, their difference is also noticeable and not trivial. Essentially, a webtop is an application that will free people from desktop applications – applications are provided as services, data is stored distributively, social interaction is inherently supported, among many other points.

    In the past a few months, we have tried to build a group portal. We wish to manage all of our data in a semantically meaningful way and with easy access (e.g., no RDF knowledge is required): homepages, papers, events, tasks, emails, blog, campus life, etc. We have looked at a few projects and software, including semantic desktop projects. As none seems meet our needs, we decided to build a new one based on semantic wiki. It is not yet complete, a half-done site is on http://tw.rpi.edu/wiki . We are still working on more applications (e.g., semantic email) and many UI design things to make it more “desktop” like, e.g., a new skin. I wish this explains better why we come to the term “webtop”.

    Regards

    Jie

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  6. February 2nd, 2009 at 01:09 | #6

    I personally recommend trying out Deskie, the web desktop, if you like the idea of webtops. The idea behind Deskie is that it acts only as the desktop, while the webpages/applications remain independent, as they were designed to be. You can share your web desktop with others on Deskie too, kind of like the social bookmaking sites.

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