Tim Berners-Lee

Date: March 1998. Last edited: $Date: 2009/08/27 21:38:07 $

Status: . Editing status: incomplete first draft. This explains the rationale for XML namespaces and RDF schemas, and derives requirement on them from a discussion of the process by which we arrive at standards.

Up to Design Issues


(These ideas were mentioned in a keynote on "Evolvability" at WWW7 and this text follows closely enough for you to give yourself the talk below using those slides. More or less. If and when we get a video from WWW7 of the talk, maybe we'll be able to serve that up in parallel.)



The World Wide Web Consortium was founded in 1994 on the mandate to lead the Evolution of the Web while maintaining its Interoperability as a universal space. "Interoperability" and "Evolvability" were two goals for all W3C technology, and whilst there was a good understanding of what the first meant, it was difficult to define the second in terms of technology.

Since then W3C has had first hand experience of the tension beween these two goals, and has seen the process by which specifications have been advanced, fragmented and later reconverged. This has led to a desire for a technological solution which will allow specifications to evolve with the speed and freedom of many parallel deevlopments, but also such that any message, whether "standard" or not, at least has a well defined meaning.

There have been technologies dubbed "futureproof" for years and years, whether they are languages or backplane busses.  I expect you the reader to share my cynicism when encountering any such claim.  We must work though exactly what we mean: what we expect to be able to do which we could not do before, and how that will make evolution more possible and less painfull.

Free extension

A rule explicit or implcit in all the email-like Internet protocols has always been that if you found a mail header (or something) which you did not understand, you should ignore it. This obviously allows people to add all sorts of records to things in a very free way, and so we can call it the rul of free extension. It has its advatage of rapid prototyping and incremental deployment, and the disadvantage of ambiguity, confusion, and an inability to add a mandatory feature to an existing protocol. I adopeted the rule for HTML when initially designing it - and used it myself all the time, adding elements one by one. This is one way in which HTML was unlike a conventional SGML application, but it allowed the dramatic development of HTML.

The HTML cycle

The development of HTML between 1994 and 1998 took place in a cycle, fuelled by the tension between the competitive urge of companies to outdo each other and the common need for standards for moving forward. The cycle starts simply simply bcause the HTML standard is open and usable by anyone: this means that any engineer, in any company or waiting for a bus can think of new ways to extend HTML, and try them out.

The next phase is that some of these many ideas are tried out in prototypes or products, using the fact free extension rule that any unrecongined extensiosn will be ignored by everything which does not understand them. The result is a drmatic growth in features. Some of these become product differentiators, during which time their originators are loth to discuss the technology with the competition. Some features die in the market and diappear from the products. Those successful features have a fairly short lifetime as product differetiators, as they are soon emulated in some equivalent (though different) feature in competeing products.

After this phase of the cycle, there are three or four ways of doing the same thing, and engineers in each company are forced to spend their time writing three of four different versions of the same thing, and coping with the software architectural problems which arise from the mix of different models. This wastes program size, and confuses users. In the case for example, of the TABLE tag, a browser meeting one in a document had no idea which table extension it was, so the situation could become ambiguous. If the interpretation of the table was important for the safe interpretation ofthe document, the server would never know whether it had been done, as an unaware client would blithely ignore it in any case. This internal software mess resulting from having to implement multiple models also threatens future deevlopment. It turns the stable consistent base for future development into something fragmented and inconsistent: it is difficult to design new features in such an environment.

Now the marketting pressure is off which prevented discussions, and there is a strong call for the engineers to get around the W3C table, and iron out a common way of doing things. As this happens, a system is designed which puts together the best aspects of each other system, plus a few weeks experience, so everyone is in the end happier with the result. The companies all go away making public promises to implement it, even though the engineering staff will be under pressure to add the next feature and startthe next cycle. The result is published as a common specification opene to anyone to implement. And so the cycle starts again.

This is not the way all W3C activities have worked, but it was the particular case with HTML, and it illustrates some of the advantages and disadvantages with the free extenstion rule.

Breaking the cycle

The HTML cycle as a method of arriving at consensus on a document has its drawbacks. By 1998, there were reasons to change the cycle.The work in the W3C, which had started off in 1994 with several years backlog of work, had more or less caught up, and was begining to lead, rather than trail, developments. The work was seen less as fire fighting and more as consolitation. By this time the spec was growing to a size where the principle of modularity was seriously flaunted. Any new developments clearly had to be seperate modules. Already style information had been moved out into the Cascading Style Sheets language, the programming interface work was a seperate Document Object Model activity, and guidelines for accessibility were tackled by a seperate group.

Inthe future it was clear that we needed somehow to set up a modular system which would allow one to add to HTML new standard modules. At the same time, it was clear that with XML available as a manageble version of SGML as a base for anyone to define their own tag sets, there was likely to be a deluge of application-specific and industry-specific XML based languages. The idea of all this happening underthefree extension rule was frightening. Most applications would simply add new tags to HTML. If we continued the process of retrospectively roping into a new bigger standard, the document would grow without limit and become totally unmanageble. The rule of free extesnion was no longer appropriate.

Well defined interfaces

Now let us compare this situation with the way development occus in the world of distributed computing, specifically remote rpocedure call (RPC) and distributed object oriented systems. In these systems, the distributed system (equivalent to the server plus the client for the web) is viewed as a single software system which happens to be spread over several physical machines. [nelson - courier, etc]

The network protocols are defined automatically as a function of the software interfaces which happen to end up being between modules on different machines. Each interface, local or remote, has a well documented structure, and the list of functions (procedures, methods or whatever) and parameters are defined in machine-processable form. As the system is built, the compiler checks that the interfaces required by one module is exactly provided by another module. The interface, in each version of its development, typically has an identifying (typically very long) unique number.

The interface defines the parameters of a remote call, and therefore defines exactly what can occur in a message from one module to another. There is no free extension. If the interface is changed, and a new module made, any module on the other side of the interface will have to be changed too, or you can't build the system.

The great advantage of this is that when the system has been built, you expect it to work. There is no wondering wether a table is being displayed - if you have called the table module, you know exactly what the module is supposed to do, and there is no way the system could be without that module. Given the chaos of the HTML devleopment world, you can imagine that many people were hankering after the well defined interfaces of the distributed computing technology.

With well-defined interfaces, either everything works, or nothing. This was in fact at least formally the case with SGML documents. Each had a document type definition (DTD) refered to at the the top, which defiend in principle exactly what could and could not be in the document. PICS labels were similar in that thet are self-describing: they actually have a URI atthe top which points to a machine-readable description of what can and can't be in athat PICS label. When you see one of these documents, as when you get an RPC mesaage with an interface number on it, you can check whether you understand the interface or not. Another intersting thing you can do, if you don't have a way of processing it, is to look it up in some index and dynamically download the code to process it.

The existence of the Web makes all this much smoother: instead of inventing arbitrary names for inetrfaces, tyou can use a real URI which can be dereferenecd and return the master definition of the interface in real time. The Web can become a decentralised registray of interfaces (languages) and code modules.

The need was clearly for the best of both worlds. One must be able to freely extend a language, but do so with an extension language which is itself well defined. If for example, documents which were HTML 2.0 plus Netscape's version of tables version 2.01 were identified as such, mcuh o the problem of ambiguity would have been resolved, but the rest ofthe world left free to make their own table extensions. This was the goal of the namespaces work in XML.

Modularity in HTML

To be able to use the namespaces work in the extension of HTML, HTML has to transition from being an SGML application (with certain constraints) to being an XML based langauge. This will not only give it a certain ease of parsing, but allow it to build on the modularity introduced by namespaces.

In fact, already in April of 1998 there was a W3C Recommendation for "MathML", defined as as XML langauge and obviously aimed at being usable in the context of an HTML document, but for which there was no defined way to write a combined HTML+MathML document. MathML was already waiting for XML namespaces.

XML namespaces will allow an author (or authoring tool, hopefully) to declare exactly waht set of tags he orshe is using in a document. Later, schemas should allow a browser to decide what to do as a fall back when finding vocabulary which it does not understand.

It is expected that new extensions to HTML be introduced as namespaces, possibly languages in their own right. The intent is that the new languages, where appropriate, will be able to use the existing work on style sheets, such as CSS, and the existing DOM work which defines a programming interface.

Language mixing

Language mixing is an important facility, for HTML, for the evolution of all other Web and application technology. It must allow, in a mixed labguage document, for both langauges to be well defined. A mixed langage document is quiote analogous to a program which makes calls to two runtime libraries, so it is not rocket science. It is not like an RPC message, which in most systems is very strongly ytped froma single rigid definition. (An RPC message can be represented as a structured document but not, in general, vice-versa)

Language mixing is a realtity. Real HTML pages are often HTML with Javascript, or HTML plus CSS, or both. They just aren't declared as such. In real life, many documents are made from multiple vocabularies, only some of which one understands. I don't understand half the information in the tax form - but I know enough to know what applies to me. The invoice is a good example. Many differet coloured copies of the same document used to serve as a packing list, restocking sheet, invoice, and delivery note. Different parts of a company would understand different bits: the financial dividion woul dcheck amounts and signatures, the store would understand the part numbers, and the sales and marketting would define dthe relationship betwene the part numbers and prices.

No longer can the Web tolerate the laxness which HTML and HTTP have been extended. However, it cannot constrain itself to a system as rigid as a classical disributed object oriented system.

The note on namespaces defines some requirements of a language framework which allows new schmata to be developed quite independently, and mixed within one document. This note elaborates on the sorts of things which have to be possible when the evolution occurs.

The Power of schema languages

You may notice than nowhere in the architecture do XML or RDF specify what language the schema should be written in. This is because much of the future power of the system will lie in the power of the schema and related documents, so it isimportant to leave that open as a path for the future. In the short term, yo can think of a schema being written in HTML and english. Indeed, this is enough to tie the significance of documents written in the schema to the law of the land and mkae the document an effective part of serious commercial or other social interaction. You can imagine a schema being in a sort of SGML DTD language which tells a computer program what constraints there are on the structure of documents, but nothing about their meaning. This allows a certain crude validity check to be made on a document but little else.

Now let us imagine further power which we could put into a schema language.

Partial Understanding

A crucial first milestone for the system is partial understanding. Let's use the scenario of an invoice, like the scenario in the "Extensible languages" note. An invoice refers to two schemata: one is a well-known invoice schema and the other a proprietory part number schema. The requirement is that an invoice processing program can process the invoice without needing to understand the part description.

Somehow the program must find out that the invoice is from its point of view just as valid as an invoice with the details fo the part description stripped out.

Optional parts

One possibility is to mark the part description as "optional" on the text. We could imagine a well-known way of doing this. It could be done in the document itself [as usual, using an arbitrary syntax:]

 <xml:using href="http://aeroco.com/1998/03/sy4" as="A">
<a:partdesc> ... <a:partdesc> </xml:using>
</opional> </item>

There are problems with this. One is that we are relying on the invoice schema to define what in invoice is and isn't and what it means. It would be nice if the designer of the invoice could say whether the item should contain a part description of not, or whether it is possible to add things into the item description or not. But in general if there is something to be said we like to allow it to be said anywhere (like metadata). But for the optionalness to be expressed elsewhere would save the writer of every invoice the bother of having to explicitly.

Partial Understanding

The other more fundamental problem is that the notion of "optional" is subjective. We can be more precise about "partial understanding" by saying that the invoice processing system needs to convert the document which contains things it doesn't understand into a document which it does completely understand: a valid invoice. However, another agent may which to convert the same detailed invoice into, say, a delivery note: in this case, quite different information would be "optional".

To be more specific, then, we need to be able to describe a transformation from one document to another which preserves "valididy" in some sense. A simple form of transformation is the removal of sections, but obviously there can be all kinds of level of transformation language ranging from the cudest to theturing complete. Whatever the language, statement that given a document x, that some f(x) can be deduced.

Principle of Least Power

In practice, this suggest that one should leave the actual choice of the transformation language as a flexibility point. However, as with most choices of computer language, the general "principle least power" applies:

When expressing something, use the least powerful language you can.

(@@justify in greater depth in footnote)

While being able to express a very complex function may feel good, the result will in general be less useful. As Lao-Tse puts it, "Usefulness from what is not there". From the point of view of translation algorithms, one usefulness is for them to be reversible. In the case in which you are trying to prove something (such as access to a web site or financial credibility) you need to be able to derive a document of a given form. The rules you use are the pieces of the web of trust and you are looking for a path through the web of trust. Clearly, one approach is to enumerate all the things which can be deduced from a given document, but it is faster to have an idea of which algorithms to apply. Simple ones have input and output patterns. A deletion rule is a very simple case


This is stream editor languge for "Remove "foo" from any string leaving what was on either side". If this rule is allowed, it means that "foo"is optional. @@@ to be continued

Optional features and Partial Understanding

Test of Independent Invention

The test of independent invention is a thought experiment which tests one aspect of the quality of a design. When you design something, you make a number of important architectural decisions, such as how many wheels a car has, and that an arch will be used between the pillas of the vault. You make other arbitrary decisions such as the color of the car, the side of the road everyone will drive, whether to open the egg at the big end or the little end.

Suppose it just happens that another group is designing the same sort of thing, tackling the same problem, somewhere else. They are quite unknown to you and you to them, but just suppose that being just as smart as you, they make all the same important archietctural decisions. This you can expect if you believe hat these decisions make logical sense. Imagine that they have the same philosophy: it is largely the philosophy which we are testing. However, imagine that they make all the arbitrary decisions differently. They complement bit 7. They drive on the other other side of the road. They use red buoys on the starbord side, and use 575 lines per screen on their televisions.

Now imagine that the two systems both work (locally), and being usccessful, grow and grow. After a while, they meet. Suddenly you discover each other. Suddenly, people want to work across both systems. They want to connect two road systems, two telephone systems, two networks, two webs. What happens?

I tried originally to make WWW pass the test. Suppose someone had (and it was quite likely) invented a World Wide Web system somewhere else with the same principles. Suppose they called it the Multi Media Mesh (tm) and based it on Media Resource Identifiers(tm), the MultiMedia Transport Protocol(tm), and a Multi Media Markup Language(tm). After a few years, the Web and the Mesh meet. What is the damage?

(see also WWW and Unitarian Universalism)

Obviously we are looking for the latter option. Fortunately, we could immediately extend URIs to include "mmtp://" and extend MRIs to include "http:\\". We could make gateways, and on the better browsers immediately configure them to go through a gateway when finding a URI of the new type. The URI space is universal: it covers all addresses of all accessible objects. But it does not have to be the only universal space. Universal, but not unique. We could add MMML as a MIME type. And so on. However, if we required all Web servers to synchronise though one and only one master lock server in Waltdorf, we would have found the Mesh required synchronisation though a master server in Melbourne. It would have failed.

No system completely passes the ToII - it is always some trouble to convert.

Not just a thought experiment

As the Web becomes the basis for many many applications to be build on top of it, the phenomenon of independent invention will recur again and again. We have to build technology so as to make it easy for systems to pass the test, and so survive real life in an evolving world.

If systems cannot pass the TOII, then we can only achieve worldwide interoperability when one original design has originally beaten the others. This can happen if we all sit down together as a worldwide committee and do a "top down"design of the whole thing before we start. This works for a new idea but not for the automation of something which, like pharmacy or trade, has been going on for centuries and is just being represented in the Semantic Web. For example, the library community has had endless trouble trying to agree on a single library card format (MARC record) worldwide.

Another way it can happen is if one system is dropped completely, leading to a complete loss of the effport put into it. When in the late 1980s Europe eventually abandoned its suite of ISO protocols for networking because they just could not interwork with the Internet, a huge amount of work was lost. Many problems, solved in Europe but not in the US (including network addresses of more than 32 bits) had to be solved again on the Internet at great cost. Sweden actually changed from driving on the left to driving on the right. All over the world, people have changed word processor formats again and again but only at the cost of losing access to huge amounts of legacy information. The test of independent invention is not just a thought experiment, it is happening all the time.

From philosophy to requirement

So now let us get more specific about what we really need in the underlying technology of the Semantic Web to allow systems in the future to pass the test of independent invention.

We will be smarter

Our first assumption is that we will be smarter in the future. This means that we will produce better systems. We will want to move on from version 1 to version 2, from version n to version n+1.

What happens now? A group of people use version 4 of a word process and share some documents. One touches a document using a new version 5 of the same program. Oen of the other people tries to load it using version 4 of the software. The version 4 program reads the file, and find it is a version5 file. It declares that there is no way it can read the file,as it was produced in the future, and there is no way it can predict the future to know how to read a version 5 file. A flag day occurs: everyone in the group has to upgrade immediately - and often they never even planned to.

So the first requirement is for a version 4 program to be able to read a version 5 file. Of course there will be some features in version 5 that the version 4 program will not be able to understand. But most of the time, we actually find that what we want to achieve can be done by partial understanding - understanding those parts of the document which correspond to functions which exist in version 4. But even though we know partial understanding would be acceptable, with most systems we don't know how to do even that.

We are not the smartest

The philosophical assumption that we may not be smarter than everyone else (a huge step for some!) leads us to realise that others will have gret ideas too, and will independently invent the same things. It forces us to consider the test of independent invention.

The requirement for the system to pass the ToII is for one program which we write to be able to read somehow (partially if not totally) data written by the program written by the other folks. This simple operation is the key to decentralised evolution of our technology, and to the whole future of the Web.

So we have deduced two requirements for the system from our simple philosophical assumptions:

The story so far

We are we with the requirements for evolvability so far? We are looking for a tecnology which has free but well defined extension. We want to do it by allowing documents to use mixed vocabularies. We have already found out (from PICS work for example) that we need to be abl eto know whether extension vocabulary is mandatory or can be ignored. We want to use the Web for any registry, rather than any central point. The technology has to be allow an application to be able to convert the output of a future version of itself, or the output of an equivalent program written indpendently, into something it can process, just by looking up schema information.

Evolution of data

Now let us look at the world of data on the Web, the Semantic Web, which I expect we expect to become a new force in the next few years. By "data" as opposed to "documents", I am talking about information on the Web in a form specifically to aid automated processing rather than human browsing. "Data" is characterised by infomation with a well defined strcuture, where the atomic parts have wel ldefined types, such as numbers and choices from finite sets. "Data", as in a relational database, normally has well defined meaning which has rarely been written down. When someone creates a new databse, they have to give the data type of each column, but don't have to explain what the field name actually means in any way. So there is a well defined semantics but not one which can be accessed. In fact, the only time you tells the machine anything about the semantics is when you define which two columns of different tables are equivalent in some way, so that they can be used for example as the basis for joining the two databases. (That the meaning of data is only defined relative to the meaning of other data is of course quite normal - we don't expect machines to have any built in understanding of what "zip code" might mean apart from where you can read it and write it and what you can compare it with). Notice that what happens with real databases is that they are defined by users one day, and they evolve. They are rarely the result of a committee sitting down and deciding on a set of concepts to use across a company or an industry, and then designing the data schema. The schema is craeted on the fly by the user.

We can distinguish two ways in which tha word "schema" has been used:

Syntactic Schema: A document, real or imagined, which constrains the structure and/or type of data. (pl.: Schemata).
Semantic schema: A document, real or imagined, which defines the infereneces from one schema to another, thus defining the semantics of one syntactic schema in terms of another.

I will use it for the first only. In fact, a syntactic schema dedfines a class of document, and often is accompanied by human documentation which provides some rough semantics.

There is a huge amount ("legacy" would unfairly suggest obsolescence) of data in relational databases. A certain amount of it is being exported onto the web as virtual hypertext. There are many applications which allow one to make hypertext views of difeferent aspects of a database, so that each server request is met by performing adatabse query, and then formatting the result as a report in HTML, with appropriate style and decoration.

Data about data: Metadata

Information about information is interesting in two ways. Firstly, it is interesting because the Web society desperately needs it to be able to manage social aspects of information such as endorsement (PICS labels, etc), ownership and access rights to information, privacy policies (P3P, etc), structuring and cataloguing information and a hundred otehr uses which I will not try to ennumerate. This first aspect is discussed elsewhere. (See Metadata architecture about general treatment of metadata and labels, and the Technology and Society domain for overveiw of many of the social drivers and related projects and technology)

The second interest in metadata is that it is data. If we are looking for a language for putting data onto the Web, in a machine understandable way, then metadata happens to be a first application area. Also, because metadat ais fundamental to most data on eth web, it is the focus of W3C effort, while many other forms of data are regarded as applications rather than core Web archietcure, and so are not.

Publishing data on the web

Suppose for example that you run a server which provides online stock prices. Your application which today provides fancy web pages with a company's data in text and graphs (as GIFs) could tomorrow produce the same page as XML data, in tabular form, for machine access. The same page could even be produced at the same URL in two formats using content negotiation, or you could have a typed link between the machine-understandable and person-understandable versions.

The XML version contains at the top (or soemewhere) a pointer to a schema document. This poiner makes the document "self-describing". It is this pointer which is the key to any machine "understanding" of the page. By making the schema a first class object, in other words by giving its URL and nothing else, we are leaving the dooropen to many possibilities. Now it is time to look at the various sorts of schema document which it could point to.

Levels of schema language

Computer languags can be classified into various types, with various capabilities, and the sort we chose for the schema document, and information we allow the schema fundamentally affects not just what the semantic web can be but, more importantly, how it can grow.

The schema document can, broadly, be one of the following:

  1. Notional only: imaginary, non-existent but named.
  2. Human readable
  3. Machine-understandable and defining structure
  4. Machine-understandable and slo which are optional parts
  5. A Turing-complete recipe for conversion into othr langauges
  6. A logical model of document

We'll go over the pros and cons of each, because none of these should be overlooked, but some are often way better than others.

Schema 1: URI only

This may sound like a silly trivial example, but like many trival examples, it is not silly. If you just name your schema somewhere in URI space, then you have identified it. This deosn't offer a lot of help to anyone to find any documentation online, but one fundamental function is possible. Anyone can check compatability: They can compare the schema against a list of schemata they do understand, and return yes or no.

In fact, they can also se an idnex to look up information about the schema, including ifnromation about suitable software to download to add understanding of the document. In fact this level is the level which many RPC systems use: the interface is given a unique but otherwise random number which cannot be dereferenced directly.

So this is the level of machine-understanding typical of distributed ocmputing systems and should not be underestimated. There are lot sof parts of URI space you can use for this: yo might own some http: space (but never actually serve the document at that point) , but if you don't, you can always generate a URI in a mid: ro cid: space or if desperate in one of the hash spaces.

Schema option 2: Human readable

The next step up from just using the Schema identifier as a document tyope identifier is to make that URI one which will dereference to a human-readable document. If you're a computer, big deal. But as well as allowing a strict compatiability test (test for equality of the schema URI), this also allows human beings to get involed if ther is any argument as to what a document means. This can be signifiant! For example, the schema could point to a complete technical spec which is crammed with legalese about what the document does and does not imply and commit to. At the end of the day, all machine-understandable descriptions of documents are all very well, but until the day that they bootstrap themselves into legality, they must all in the end be defined in terms of human-readable legalese to have social effect. Human legalese is the schema language of our society. This is level 2.

Schema option 3: Define structure

Now we move into the meat of the schema system when we start to discuss schema documents which are machine readable. now we are satrting to enable some machine understanding and automatic processing of document types which have not been pre-programmed by people. Ça commence.

The next level we conside is that when your brower (agent, whatever) dereferences the namespace URI, it find a schema which defines the structure of the document. this is a bit like an SGML Doctument type Definition (DTD). It allows you to do everything which the levels 1 and 2 allowed, if it has sufficient comments in it to allow human arguments to be settled.

In addition, a system which has a way of defineing structure allows everyone to have one and only one parser to handle all manner of documents. Any document coming across the threshold can be parse into a tree.

More than that, it allows a document o be validated against allowed strctures. If a memeo contains two subject fields, it is not valid. Tjis is one fo the principal uses of DTDs in SGML.

In some cases, there maybe another spin-off. You canimagine that if the schema document lists the allwoed structrue of the document, and the types (and maybe names) of each element, then this would allow an agent to construct on the fly a graphic user interafce for editing such a document. This was theintent with PICS rating systems: at least, a parent coming across a new rating system would be be given a ahuman-readable descriptoin of the various parameters and would be able to select

Schema option 4: Structure + Optional flags

The "optional" flag is a term I use here for a common crucial step which can make the difference between chaos and smooth evolution. All you need to do is to mark in the schema of a new version of the language which elements of the langauge can be ignored if you don't understand them. This simple step allows a processor which handled the old language, giventhe schema of the new langauge, to filter it so as to produce a document it can legitimately understand.

Now we have a technology which ahs all the benefits to date, plus it can handle that elusive version 2 to version 1 conversion problem!

Schema option 5: Turning complete language

Always in langauges there is the balance between the declarative limited langauge, whose foprmulae can be easily manipulated, and the powerful programming language whose programs cannot be analyzed in general, but which have to be left to run to see what they do. Each end of the spectrum has its benefits. In describing a lanuage in terms of another, one way is to provide a black box program, say in Java or Javascript, which will convert from one to the other.

Filters written in turing-complete languages generally have to be trusted, as you can't see what rules they are based on by looking at them. But they can do weird and wonderful things. (They can also crash and loop forever of course!).

A good language for conversion from one XML-based language to another is XSL. It lstarted off as a template-like system for building one document from another (and can be very simple) but is in fact Turning-complete.

When you do publish a program to convert language A to language B, then anyone who trusts it has that capability. A disadvantage is that they never know how it works. You can't deduce things about the individual components of the languages. You can't therefore infer much indirectly about relationships to other languages. The only way such a filter can be used is to get whatever you have into language A and then put it though the filter. This might be useful. But it isn't as fascinating as the option of blowing language A open.

Schema option 6: Expose logic of document

What is fundamentally more exciting is to write down as explicitly as posible wahteth new language means. Sorry, let me take that back, in case you think that I am talking about some absulte meaning of meaning. If you know me, I am not. All I mean is that we write in a machine-processable logical way the equivalences and conversions which are possible in and out of language A from other languages. And other languages.

A specific case of course, is when we document the relationship betwen version 2 and version 1. The schema document for version 2 could explain that all the terms are synonyms, except for some new terms which can be converted to nothing (ie are optional) and some which affect the meaning of the document completely and so if you don't understand them you are stuck.

In a more general case, take a language like iCalendar in RDF (were it in RDF), which is for describing events as would be in a personal organizer. A schema for the language might declare equivalences betwen a calendar's concept of group MEMBER ship and an access control system's concept of group membership; it might declare the equivalence of eth concept of LOCATION to be the text description of a Geographical Information Systems standard's location, and it may declare an INDIVIDUAL to be a superset of the HR department's concept of employee. These bits of information of the stuff of the semantic web, as they allow inference to stretch across the gloabe and conclude things which we knew as whole but no one person knew. This is what RDF and the Semnatic Web logic built on top of it is all about.

So, what will semantic web engine be able to do? They will not all have the same inference abilities or algorithms. They will share a core concept of an RDF statement - an assertion that a given resource has a property with a given value. They will use this as a common way of exchanging data even when their inference rules are not compatible. An agent will be able to read a document in a new version of a language, by looking up on the web the relationship with the old version that it can natively read. It will be able to combine many documents into a single graph of knowledge, and draw deductions from the combination. And even though it might not be able to find a proof of a given hypothesis, when faced with an elaborated proof it will be able to check its veracity.

At this stage (1998) we need relational database experts in the XML and RDF groups, [2000 -- include ontology and conceptual graph and knowledge representation experts].

Evolvability in the real world

Examples abound of language mixing and evolution in the real world which make the need for these capabilities clear. There is a great and unused overlap in the concepts used by, for example, personal information managers, email systems, and so on. These capabilities would allow information to flow between these applications.

You just have to look at the history of a standard such as MARC record for library information to see that the tension between agreeing on a standard (difficult and only possible for a common subset) and allowing variations (quick by not interoperable) would be eased by allowing language mixing. A card could be written out in a mixture of standard and local terms.

The real world is full of times when conventions have been developed separately and the relationships have been deduced afterward: hence the market for third party converters of disk formats, scheduler files, and so on.

Engines of the future

I have left open the discussion as to what inference power and algorithms will be useful on the semantic web precisely because it will always be an open question. When a language is sufficiently expressive to be able to express teh state of the real world and real problems then there will be no one query engine which will be able to solve real problems.

We can, however, guess at how systems might evolve. No one at the beginning of the Web foresaw the search engines which could index almost all the web, so these guesses may be very inaccurate!

We note that logical systems provide provably good answers, but don't scale to large problems. We see that search engines, remarkably, do scale - but at the moment produce very unreliable answers. Now, on a semantic web we can imagine a combination of the two. For example, a search engine could retrieves all the documents which reference the terms used in the query, and then a logical system act on that closed finite world of information to determine a reliable solution if one exists.

In fact I thing we will see a huge market for interesting new algorithms, each to take advantage of particular characteristics of particular parts of the Web. New algorithms around electronic commerce may have directly beneficial business models, to there will be incentive for their development.

Imagine some questions we might want to ask an engine of the future:

All these involve bridging barriers between domains of knowledge, but they do not involve very complex logic -- except for the tax form, that is. And who knows, perhaps in the future the tax code will have to be presented as a formula on the semantic web, just as it is expected now that one make such a public human-readable document available on the Web.


There are some requirements on the Semantic Web design which must be upheld if the technology is to be able to evolve smoothly. They involve both the introduction of new versions of one language, and also the merging of two originally independent languages. XML Namespaces and RDF are designed to meet these requirements, but a lot more thought and careful design will be needed before the system is complete.

The Space Within

Thirty spokes share the wheel's hub;
It is the center hole that makes it useful.
Shape clay into a vessel;
It is the space within that makes it useful.
Cut doors and windows for a room;
It is the holes that make it useful.
Therefore profit comes from what is there;
Usefulness from what is not there.




Imagine that the EU and the US independently define RDF schemata for an invoice. Invoice are traded around Europe with a schema pointer at the top which identifies the smema. Indeed, the schema may be found on the web.

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Tim BL