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.

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While Microsoft may be tight-lipped about its approach to Semantic Web browsing, neither its browser nor Mozilla’s necessarily need to integrate microformats to actually begin using a component of the Semantic Web.


That’s because the Semantic Web, in some senses, is already used by millions today through a format most browser users recognize: RSS feeds.

The RDF standard at the heart of the Semantic Web is also critical to RSS feeds, which represents the most common usage of RDF on the Web at the moment.


“Over the last few years, the types of content that people have syndicated through RSS feeds have expanded to include audio and video, creating a renaissance of independent broadcasting on the Web,” Faaborg said.


RDF plays a special role with Firefox 3, enabling it to better interpret the content type of RSS feeds. Faaborg said that previously, Web browsers haven’t played much of a role in the podcasting movement.


“Firefox 3’s support for Web feeds is now a lot smarter: Firefox 3 can now detect the difference between Web feeds containing mostly text, audio podcasts and video podcasts, and it makes it easy for users to dispatch these different types of feeds to the appropriate application,” Faaborg said.


“For instance, you can have Firefox always send feeds containing mostly text to your favorite feed reader, audio podcasts to an application like iTunes or Songbird, and video podcasts to an application like Miro,” he said.


While some might argue that the Semantic Web might not necessarily be a
positive thing
, Faaborg isn’t among them. In his view, what matters are the ways in which user’s lives will be made easier in the future thanks to different types of Semantic Web technologies.

“For instance, imagine a future version of Firefox that keeps a history of not just the different Web pages you visit, but also the data it recognized on those pages, like events and locations,” he said. “This will make it a lot easier for users to quickly retrieve an important piece of information they have seen in the past.”


Faaborg said a number of different potential uses for semantic information could impact users’ overall Web experience. For example, events mentioned in blogs to which a user is subscribed could potentially be added as a layer in the user’s calendar.


Another potential application for semantic information is that the functionality of the location bar in Firefox 3 could be expanded with microformat detection, he said.


Imagine a user wishing to find the location of a restaurant for which they just booked a reservation online. Instead of simply browsing through their Web history to find an address on an earlier Web page — and then doing a copy-and-paste operation to locate in on an online map — the user could just quickly begin typing the name of the restaurant into their browser’s location bar, and then select the correct result to navigate to a map of its location.


Months later, if the user wants to recommend the restaurant to a friend but can’t remember its name, all they would need to do is type a small part of its physical address into their browser’s location bar to retrieve the name.


“This type of streamlined information retrieval will be possible if your browser locally stores more than just a list of URLs you visit, but also the structured semantic data that it encounters while you browser the Web,” Faaborg said.

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