Buzz’s Blog: On Web 3.0 and the Semantic Web

Jun 11 2009   11:44AM GMT

The two duct tapes of computing: Excel and Firefox, and the New Web

Roger King Roger King Profile: Roger King

This blog concerns advanced Web technologies. Each posting should be readable on its own, but the series of blogs as a whole tell a continuous story.

In this posting, we look at the Duct Tape Phenomena.


As a researcher, I have worked with biologist in the past. Big biologists, not microbiologists, the folks who tinker with DNA. The folks I worked with study macroscopic things mostly, species, in particular. They search for as-yet undocumented species. They tend to have appointments at major universities around the world, and then take extended field trips to study life. Most of them go to rain forests because that’s where biodiversity is its greatest.

Each scientist has a chunk of the world and a kind of animal they specialize in. I know the butterfly man of Costa Rica, a fellow who has documented several thousand varieties of butterflies, some of which have wing spans of several inches. I know the bug man of the Amazon, who builds long tunnel-like things from the floor of the forest up to the canopy, fills the tunnels with bug killer, and then looks among the dead for bugs that are yet unheard-of.

Here’s the interesting part, at least from a computing perspective: a lot of the scientists I came into contact with store their data in Excel. This is a phenomena that crosscuts the entire spectrum of computer users. They had to learn Excel at some point, maybe in school or at some workplace, and the next time they needed an application to do something, they found a way to make Excel do the job. For most people, learning the “right” application to use is far too much work, even if it’s hard to query Excel the way we would a database, even if Excel spreadsheets get way out of control size-wise, given the large amount of data many of us collect.

Excel, in many ways, is the duct tape of desktop and notebook computing.

Firefox (or your favorite browser).

But what about developers of desktop apps? What do they use as a design paradigm when building the interface to an app, even if it’s not meant for the Web?


Indeed, there is a merging of desktop GUI and web app interface technologies, and now you could sit down in front of a running app and not be sure which of the two you are seeing. In fact, the design impact is not the end of it. We actually use browsers now to interface with some desktop apps, but not often, not yet. However, at least as a user interface paradigm, the browser is becoming the duct tape of GUI design.

For developers of interfaces, Firefox has become a sort of duct tape.

The new Web.

These are the two things that underly much of computing: the need to store and compute (as with Excel) and the need to interface (as with Firefox). But when the new Web, (in the form of the Semantic Web and truly advanced Web 3.0 apps), begins to arrive, will a new paradigm emerge?

Perhaps they will be extra smart browsers that can process code written with xml and namespace and other semantic technology, so they can do more than just look for pages according to the English keywords on them.

In other words, we could imagine them as extensions of what our browsers do for us now. They’re very stupid now, really. They’re not at all smart like Excel.

How does it work now? Crawlers commissioned by search engines like Google constantly search the Web and “invert” every static page they find by building an index on every word in them. And then later, we can search this gigantic index store according to the words that appear on the pages that the crawler has found. Once we find URLs of interest, we click on them and go visit the actual pages. These searchers are far, far less than “semantic” in nature.

Our smart browsers will also have to let us build up organized libraries of specialized web content we have found, including documents, images, video, sound, animation, and such specialized data as medical treatment advice. We might maintain these in virtual space, or we might download frozen copies of pages to store on our machines. Our smart browsers could constantly look for updated versions of pages we have copied and downloaded.

These smart browsers will also have to interrelate data of a wide variety of sorts, so that a description of certain symptoms can be accurately hooked up with the specifics of a diagnosis and a medical treatment plan. Our browsers will have to isolate conflicting information, as well.

So, in the future, we’ll need browsers with smarts. We’ll look at this much more carefully in a future posting of this blog, but for now, here’s the lesson: thats the two things that applications do for us, they let us store and search things, and they let us compute things.

And what about viewing all this information? How will so much complex, multimedia information be presented? Not as simple webpages with images, text, and things you can click on. Perhaps the new browsers will lay out multimedia presentations of complex, integrated information that has been synthesized from many, many different sources.

The point.

So, what does this imply? That these two things underly computing apps of almost all sorts: 1, storing and searching, and 2, viewing and manipulating.

And they will underlie the most complex and sophisticated end-user applications of the future.

In a vague, somewhat analogous fashion, most apps are a blend of Excel and Firefox.

Things change radically over time. And things never really change at all.

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