One of the stealthy semantic Web startups, Metaweb Technologies revealed its product strategy. According to John Markoff's New York Times story, Metaweb is developing Freebase, "a centralized repository that is more like a digital almanac," in contrast to the distributed card catalog that is the current way Web is searched. Freebase captures structured data that allows relationships and meaning to be established among things on the Web, much like the human brain works. Markoff wrote:
For example, an entry for California’s governor, Arnold Schwarzenegger, would be entered as a topic that would include a variety of attributes or “views” describing him as an actor, athlete and politician — listing them in a highly structured way in the database.
That would make it possible for programmers and Web developers to write programs allowing Internet users to pose queries that might produce a simple, useful answer rather than a long list of documents.
Since it could offer an understanding of relationships like geographic location and occupational specialties, Freebase might be able to field a query about a child-friendly dentist within 10 miles of one’s home and yield a single result.
Markoff quotes Danny Hillis, one of the company founders: “We’re trying to create the world’s database, with all of the world’s information.” Web 2.0 guru Tim O'Reilly described Freeware as "building new synapses for the global brain, " and spent some time testing driving the service.
While freebase is still VERY alpha, with much of the basic functionality barely working, the idea is HUGE. In many ways, freebase is the bridge between the bottom up vision of Web 2.0 collective intelligence and the more structured world of the semantic web.
Freebase information is freely sharable under the Creative Commons Attribution license, and already has captured structured data from Wikipedia, four million songs, 100,000 restaurants and census information.
Radar Networks, the other well funded stealthy semantic Web startup, is also working on a service that automatically captures relationships among things. Company CEO Nova Spivack describes his product, in more technical terms, as a "Java-based framework for semantic web applications and services that has some similarities to Ruby on Rails, and also includes a lot of other technology such as our extremely fast and scalable storage layer for semantic data tuples, powerful semantic query capabilities, and a range of algorithms for analyzing data and doing intelligent things for users." Radar Networks plans to introduce a service this year, Spivack has said, that "will enrich and facilitate more intelligent online relationships, community, content, collaboration and even commerce."
Markoff stayed away from referring to Metaweb as Web 3.0, as he did in an earlier article about the emergence of the semantic Web from the labs, stirring up the echo chamber that is still trying to define Web 2.0 and milk it for all it's worth. Whatever it is called, this new semantic layer and the databased Web could make the Internet far more useful, and even intelligent. But as O'Reilly said, we are in the early alpha stage...dare I say, of Web 3.0.
Update: Radar Networks' Nova Spivack blogged briefly about the difference between Metaweb and his company:
Metaweb and Radar Networks are working on two very different applications (fortunately!). Metaweb is essentially making the Wikipedia of the Semantic Web. Here at Radar Networks we are making something else -- but equally big -- and in a different category. Just as Metaweb is making a semantic analogue to something that exists and is big, so are we: but we're more focused on the social web -- we're building something that everyone will use. But we are still in stealth so that's all I can say for now.
So we could have the semantically enriched Wikipedia from one company and MySpace from another. It's ironic that these two companies focused on injecting more context and meaning into the Web have been so secretive about their inner workings. Of course, it's hard to top Google or Apple on that front...