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Firefox 3: The Semantic Web Browser?

[cob:In_Focus]The Semantic Web is a lofty idea intended to help connect sources of information and make sense of them. But how do you actually access the Semantic Web?

If the Semantic Web turns out to be anything like the Web we all know and use today, then the gateway to the Semantic Web will be the trusty Web browser.

At present, Mozilla may be leading the major browser vendors in bringing semantics to everyday Web browsing, courtesy of tools built into its upcoming Firefox 3 Web browser that. Microsoft's Internet Explorer 8 (IE8) may not be far behind, however.

Both browsers are working to include some measure of support for microformats -- a simple means of categorizing Web content as metadata.

"Firefox 3's microformats API and support for detecting different types of content inside of RSS feeds are both important steps in the direction of creating a Semantic Web browser," Alex Faaborg, Mozilla's user experience designer, told InternetNews.com.

Microformats, defined by the technology's community site Microformats.org as "small bits of HTML that represent things like people, events, tags, etc. in Web pages," represent a lightweight means of bringing semantics to the Web.

Last year, Faaborg told InternetNews.com that microformats can be thought of as the "lowercase Semantic Web," since they are less expressive but less complex than Resource Description Framework, also known as RDF , or Web Ontology Language, also called OWL . RDF and OWL are techniques for describing and organizing Semantic Web information.

In Firefox 2, microformats had been enabled by way of the Operator extension, which was developed by IBM's Michael Kaply. With the upcoming release of Firefox 3, microformats are more tightly integrated with the core browser, by way of an API for accessing microformatted content on a Web page.

Mozilla is also pushing the development of microformat-enabled content with no less than eight articles in the Mozilla Developer Center documenting microformat support in Firefox 3.

"I worked with Michael Kaply on the initial versions of his popular 'Operator' add-on, which detects and displays microformatted content in pages, and since then, he's really built on top of it and turned it into a fantastic and useful Firefox add-on," Faaborg said.

"Given the vibrant extension development community that Firefox has, we expect to see a variety of innovative extensions making use of this API over the lifecycle of Firefox 3 and beyond," he added.

Faaborg also said Kaply developed add-ons that use Firefox 3's microformats API to detect and display microformat technologies likely to be popularized through IE8. Microsoft's browser makes use of microformats by way of two technologies -- WebSlices and Activities -- that enable site developers to more easily pull in third-party content.

Though IE8 does have some semantic capabilities, it's unclear whether Microsoft currently considers IE a "Semantic Web browser."

"The Internet Explorer team is serious about enabling Web developers to be the most effective and efficient as possible," a Microsoft spokesperson said in an e-mail to InternetNews.com.

However, the spokesperson was unable to comment further on the company's current activities or plans.

"Microsoft does not have anything to share at this time regarding Semantic Web standards," the spokesperson said.