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.