The ‘S’ Word

I was having dinner with friends last weekend and, while talking about my job and technology and such, one of them remarked, “I’m bored with technology these days. Where’s all the exciting stuff? I haven’t seen anything truly interesting in a long time.” He’s got a point. We’ve reached an odd point in technological innovation in which the future isn’t quite here yet but the past is no longer sufficient.

There is, however, a very real movement pushing us toward Internet v.2. It’s in development at universities and science centers the world over by some of the biggest brains in existence. It’s a framework that will fundamentally change the Internet as we know it. And it’s turned into the whipping boy of tech in recent years, primarily because it’s so complex and nebulous. Drumroll please, it’s…. semantic technology!

I spent last week in Silicon Valley at Web 3.0, a conference devoted to the use of semantic technologies online. Web 3 is not as technically driven as SemTech, the big daddy of semantic conferences. It’s designed, theoretically, to appeal to a broader audience and this year featured panels and speakers on social media, marketing, and advertising. It was a good conference overall, though I found myself wishing for a little less geekery. And I wasn’t alone; I heard anecdotally of an attendee expressing bewilderment at several of the acronyms being thrown around. Even the journalists there to cover the conference seemed flummoxed: Wired’s Epicenter writer Ted Greenwald writes as if he was dropped down onto Mars in the middle of the night.

I don’t mean that as an insult. There are only so many times you can throw around ‘RDF’ and ‘OWL’ before your audience gives up completely. Beneath all the geek-speak and acronyms is something truly exciting, truly game-changing. But the semantic community is having a hell of a time convincing the larger tech world of that.

There are a couple of good reasons for this. One, semantic technology isn’t an actual product; it’s the underpinning of many products. And no one wants to see underpinnings. They’re only interested in shiny facings. Two, applying semantics to the entire Internet is a daunting task and, to many, seems impossible. It’s a lot like artificial intelligence – lovely idea thanks but I’ll believe it when I see the dish-washing robot.

There’s another similarity semantics shares with AI and that’s the old truism that when it’s really working, you won’t know it. So all the conversations and conferences about NLP (natural language processing) and ontologies don’t mean squat to the average consumer – or even many plugged-in early adopters – until they see the resulting products of those acronyms in action.

Siri, a long-awaited personal assistant that finally went public today, is the most user-friendly and understandable application of semantics released to date. It’s a perfect example of technology working without cognizance from the user. Tell it what you want and it finds it – a restaurant, a movie, a taxi, the temperature. It works pretty damn well and it remembers who you are and where you live to deliver better results. Siri is semantics in action and an indicator of what awaits us with Internet v.2. No, it doesn’t work perfectly every time and no, it isn’t the ultimate in semantic products. It’s just the tip of the iceberg.

And what I sincerely hope is that it’s a crack in the intellectual facade of semantic technology. That it will bring the brains out of the university labs and into cubicles to start coding. It’s time to de-geek, sem geeks. Siri has shown what we’re capable of; now let’s start flooding the market with products.

Sites I’m Loving This Week

I’ve fallen off the blog hamster wheel in recent weeks, due to travel and screening companies for DEMOfall. My calendar gets a bit ridiculous around the same time twice a year, as I spend entire days on the phone hearing about new companies. Mind you, I’m not complaining. Even when some days morph into one continuous conference call, it’s still one of the best jobs around. Paradoxically, all this activity precludes my favorite job: telling everyone about the new toys I’m using. So if you don’t mind a laundry list, here’s what’s been on my radar lately. Continue reading

Winding down SemTech and an exciting addition

My brain is beginning to melt from all of the deep-tech conversations here at SemTech. During the DEMO Road Show in Austin last week, I tweeted, “Just when you’re feeling smart, you meet a guy who built a server farm in his basement.” (That’s a story we’ll have to save for DEMOfall.) It’s essentially been my feeling this week as well, where the collective brain power in this building could likely have us colonizing Mars by next year. I consider myself reasonably well versed in semantic technology but this crowd puts me to shame. If you’re looking for an environment to really get your brain buzzing about the future of technology, make SemTech a priority next year.

I have a raft of new companies to follow up with in the coming weeks, so keep an eye on The Guidewire for new analysis on where semantics is heading. And of course we continue to gear up for DEMOfall – the first set of demonstrator invitations went out earlier this week – so you could say our plates are beginning to tip over with work. In our quest to feed the market with reasoned analysis of the startup landscape, we needed to expand our team. We needed someone super sharp about emerging tech, an early adopter with a sharp eye for innovative companies and products. We also needed someone who could take The Guidewire to the next level. Chris and I haven’t had the time to devote the creative energy necessary for building an engaging blog atmosphere.

With that, I am thrilled to announce Guidewire Group’s new research intern… drumroll please… Corvida from SheGeeks! Corvida will be with us through the summer, assisting Chris and I in all manner of ways: finding innovative startups to profile, fleshing out and updating The Guidewire, podcasting for, writing the occasional blog post, and much more. Fans of her SheGeeks and ReadWriteWeb posts, don’t despair; she’ll continue to blog regularly on both sites. I’m excited for both sides of the relationship. I hope we’ll offer Corvida a leg up into the business side of emerging technology and I know she’ll provide us with some much needed education on blogosphere success.

Join me in giving a warm welcome to Corvida. And watch this space!

Geekery Fiefdoms at SemTech

For all my stewing about presenting an effective panel here at SemTech, I think we did it in spades this morning. I’m biased of course but if the amount of active, engaged audience members and lively conversation following the panel was any indication, Taking Semantic Technology to the Masses was a success. Thomas Tague, Josh Dilworth, Mark Johnson and I had an excellent discussion about the mess the semantics space is currently in, marketing-wise, and how to dig it out and shine it up for mass consumers. We spent the first 25 minutes parsing the problem – an indication of just how deeply semantics geeks can gaze at their navels – and about 20 more minutes discussing possible solutions.

Thomas coined a term I’m stealing that sums up the semantics space perfectly: geekery fiefdom. It’s a great description of a sector that is striving to achieve traction in the consumer space, but continues to pepper its messaging with semantic buzzwords and discussions of the plumbing behind it all. As Thomas quoted one of his customers in the financial sector, “If you have to explain it, I don’t want it.”

We came to a couple of good conclusions worth mentioning:

1) Companies in the semantic space need to take a portion of their impressive brainpower and turn it toward marketing. With literal rocket scientists on the benches, finding innovative, well-packaged messages around a product and company philosophy should be a piece of cake.

2)UI, UI, UI. Mark mentioned this several times and he should know; Powerset has one of the best out there right now. Once you’ve parsed out the complex algorithms of your semantics company, spend some time on a great design. An easy-to-use, intuitive interface can vault a product to the head of the pack.

3) Play nice and share. (I’m reminded of that annoying book/poster from the early 90s – Everything I Need to Know I Learned in Kindergarten.) It’s simple but true. If semantics companies were more open to partnering with each other, the resulting applications would without a doubt take this industry to the next level. The close-to-the-vest attitude is understandable in semantics, as some very sophisticated and complex platforms and algorithms are at stake, but I think we’ve reached the point where it’s time to open up a little.

Everyone seemed to agree, including members of the audience, that semantics is poised to graduate; that it’s time to dust off this fiefdom and take it out into the countryside among real users. When and how that will happen is still undecided but I’d bet on later this year or early next.

That’s it for the moment from SemTech. I’m huddling with Hakia in a bit and can’t wait to hear their news, then it’s time to concentrate on the French Tech Tour for the next 12 hours. More tomorrow…