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The next wave of surfing Add to ...

When it opened, the Burj Al Arab hotel in Dubai, whose restaurant is accessible only by private submarine, became the world's first seven-star hotel. There is, of course, no recognized category for seven-star hotels. The Burj Al Arab merely took note that some luxury hotels described themselves as "six-star," and generously awarded itself another star on top of that, possibly on account of the submarine.

For some reason this always springs to mind when the subject of Web 3.0 comes up - and it's coming up more often than ever these days. Web 3.0 represents the next big thing, but nobody knows what it is yet. All people know for sure is that they want it to be their own pet project. Maybe it will mean a virtual 3-D universe like Second Life (doubtful). Maybe it will come to mean smarter Web-surfing software programs (boring). Maybe Web 3.0 will usher in the era when the computers rise against us (hooray!).

My own guess is that the new Web will look a little like a new site called Freebase.com. Think of it as a next-generation Wikipedia. For all its success, Wikipedia is a remarkably crude implement. If you've ever worked with a database, in which information is neatly divided up into fields - one box for a person's name, another for their date of birth, and so on - you'll find that Wikipedia is a dog's breakfast. All the information on a given topic is lumped into a single box. The day might come when computers really do rise against us, but for now, the ambiguities of human language still puzzle them. As a result, Wikipedia's search engine only works in broad strokes.

Freebase, like Wikipedia, is an open encyclopedia that most anyone can edit. But alongside each free-form article in Freebase, there are database fields for relevant hard data points. If the article is about a movie, you'll find fields for its release date, director, producer, screenwriters and so on. If the article is about a city, it will have fields for the city's population and location. If the article is about an artist, it will have a field for every one of that artist's works.

The upshot is that all the information in Freebase can be searched and sorted in every conceivable way. Want to pull out just the movies that were scored by John Williams between 1978 and 1984? Looking for cities with populations of more than one million? Freebase can pull it all out for you. Moreover, these fields aren't fixed: Users can create their own, or petition to have existing ones changed.

But a better surfing experience is only half of the Freebase equation. The second half is subtler, but more profound. Behind the scenes, its database is also open to queries from other websites and applications. And because the information in Freebase is broken down so clearly, outside applications can do some neat tricks with it.

You can see some by visiting Freebase.com. One such outside application on display asks you to plug in an architect's name, and then proceeds to pinpoint each of that architect's buildings or designs on a world map. It can do this because each architect's Freebase entry comes with a field in which a list of their creations can be entered. In turn, the Freebase entry for each of these buildings has a field for its address. The application then plugs the address into Google Maps, and voilà, a map of every building Frank Lloyd Wright ever built, automatically generated by the information in Freebase. Enter a new building into Freebase, and the new location pops up on the map.

Imagine the whole Internet working like that and you'll see what the real Web 3.0 might look like. It's called the Semantic Web, where every web page speaks two languages at once: one for the humans and, behind the scenes, another for computers.

If this computer language is applied consistently, then Web searches could intelligently pull data from all different sources at once.

The idea is being championed by research scientist Sir Timothy Berners-Lee, who has credibility since in the early 1990s he invented the Web in the first place. The Semantic Web has been talked about for years, in the kind of straining anecdotal way in which futurists try to explain the utopias that their ideas will create.

Freebase, however, is one of the first large-scale examples of how these ideas might work in the real world. The site just emerged from a private testing period, and now anyone can read it, though you still have to apply for a free invitation to edit pages (I received one within a day). It's still sparsely populated; in fact, much of its initial descriptive content is lifted directly from Wikipedia.

Of course, it might not catch on. It will be susceptible to the same problems that beset Wikipedia, chief among them unreliability and rampant bureaucracy. Perhaps Wikipedia's enormous momentum will prove insurmountable; much will depend on whether Google's mysterious algorithm will start pointing people toward Freebase when they search for things.

Freebase may or may not be the next big thing. But if it's merely a hint of what Web 3.0 might actually mean, then my initial reaction is that if this is the future, then the future is incredibly cool.

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