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Open Source Semantic Desktop Is Coming

PC users have volumes of information saved on their computers, most of it disconnected and disparate save for a basic directory system. The answer to connecting all the information into a local semantic Web of information is closer than you might think.

Thanks to the open source NEPOMUK (Networked Environment for Personalized, Ontology-based Management of Unified Knowledge) effort, the Semantic Desktop isn't a dream; it's an emerging reality and will be here with the upcoming release of KDE 4 for the Linux desktop.

"NEPOMUK is a project attempting to address what we see as a major missing component of the open source environment -- what we call 'semantic capabilities,' which you can think of as the ability to define and take advantage of the relationships between different items and types of data throughout the desktop and beyond," Stéphane Laurière, Semantic Web activities coordinator at Linux distribution Mandriva, told internetnews.com.

Mandriva is an active participant in the NEPOMUK effort along with HP, IBM, SAP and others. Among the ways that Mandriva expects to take advantage of the Semantic Desktop include a community help desk system and a P2P framework for the exchange of data and information.

The Semantic Desktop is more power than just using Google Desktop search, according to Laurière since existing desktop search tools are limited to full text indexing.

"The Semantic Desktop makes it possible to store relations, and then to search for specific ones," Laurière explained.

For example, a Semantic Desktop will store the relationship between a file saved on the computer and the e-mail it originates from. According to Laurière the Semantic Desktop merges the document and database approaches by converting all the documents present on the computer into a gigantic graph of data that can be queried and enhanced from all the desktop applications.

NEPOMUK isn't just about the desktop, though; the larger vision behind it is to be an enabler of the Semantic Web.

Sebastian Trüg, Mandriva architect of NEPOMUK-KDE, told internetnews.com that NEPOMUK largely uses the Semantic Web standards of the RDF family. Additionally he argued that the NEPOMUK world view is that the desktop is a privileged channel for putting into practice the Semantic Web principles.

"The desktop consists of isolated data whose structure and meaning are encapsulated in each application, just as Web data semantics is encapsulated in each Web site information system," Trüg explained. "This data would become tremendously more meaningful if it were cross-linked through a layer of interoperable metadata."

Trüg and Mandriva are specifically working on the NEPOMUK-KDE implementation, which is set for inclusion in the KDE 4 open source desktop later this year. The core semantic features are a key component of KDE 4's new file manager Dolphin.

Though currently implemented for KDE, NEPOMUK isn't limited to one desktop. Mandriva's Stéphane Laurière noted that discussions with some GNOME developers around the NEPOMUK specification have begun in the frame of the FreeDesktop.org working group.

"A version of the NEPOMUK specification for the Microsoft Windows platform is being worked on by the NEPOMUK Consortium," Laurière said. "Since NEPOMUK is an open specification, its principles can in theory be introduced into all desktop environments."

In terms of potential for adoption and development, the NEPOMUK project has some significant government backing for the European Union.

"One of the criteria for success defined by the EU is about contributing to the dissemination and helping the adoption of the technological results of the project," Laurière stated.

"The contribution we have done to the KDE project, and the cooperation that has emerged around the NEPOMUK specifications is an important milestone towards this goal."

Sebastian Trüg noted that the first milestone of NEPOMUK-KDE has been achieved with integration with Dolphin in KDE 4.The next milestone will consist of having several other major KDE applications harness the capabilities of the framework.

"As usual in the open source world, approval is given by users and developers," Trüg said. "We hope that many developers will jump on the NEPOMUK-KDE wagon, and will build applications we never dreamt of.

"We also hope that the NEPOMUK-KDE work will be a source of inspiration for the addition of similar semantic features in other major open source desktop environments, to the benefit of all."