Posted:January 22, 2007

MIT’s Exhibit Continues the Simile Project’s Long String of Innovative Tools

I have just come across a new innovative Web development, and its simplicity and elegance have literally taken my breath away! Exhibit, from the Simile project at MIT and its lead author David Huynh, whose contributions include the stellar Piggy Bank (semantic Web Firefox extension), Sifter (little known, but excellent automatic Web data extractor), Babel (data format translator), Timeline (Javascript timeline creator), Ajax (toolset), Solvent (Web data extractor used by Piggy Bank) and Longwell (web-based RDF-powered faceted browser). David is the lead author on the first five tools listed. As a Ph.D. student at MIT, David is truly becoming one of the leading lights in practical semantic Web tool development. Exhibit only reinforces that reputation.

According to its Web site:

Exhibit is a lightweight structured data publishing framework that lets you create web pages with support for sorting, filtering, and rich visualizations by writing only HTML and optionally some CSS and Javascript code.

It’s like Google Maps and Timeline, but for structured data normally published through database-backed web sites. Exhibit essentially removes the need for a database or a server side web application. Its Javascript-based engine makes it easy for everyone who has a little bit of knowledge of HTML and small data sets to share them with the world and let people easily interact with them. . . .

“No Database, No Web Application” means that you can create your own exhibits using just a text editor. . . It’s quite easy to make exhibits. We even let you copy data straight out of a boring spreadsheet and convert it into an exhibit automatically. . . .

Exhibit consists of a bunch of Javascript files that you include in your web page. At load time, this Javascript code reads in one or more JSON data files that you link from within your web page and constructs a database implemented in Javascript right inside the browser of whoever visits your web page. It then dynamically re-constructs the web page as the visitor sorts and filters through the data. . . .

The advantages of Exhibit are as follows:

  • No traditional database technology involved even though Exhibit-embedding web pages appear as if they are backed by databases. So you don’t have to design any database, configure it, and maintain it. After all, if you only have a few dozens of things to publish rather than thousands, why would you spend so much effort in dealing with database technologies?
  • No server-side code required even though Exhibit-embedding web pages are heavily templated. So, there is no need to learn ASP, PHP, JSP, CGI, Velocity, etc. There is no need to worry which server-side scripting technology your hosting provider supports.
  • No need for web server if you only want to create exhibits and keep them on your own computer for your own use. They work straight from the file system.

We also provide a complementary service called Babel that lets you convert data from various sources, including tab-separated values (copied straight from spreadsheets) and Bibtex files, into formats that Exhibit understands.

The Exhibit Web site offers a growing list of helpful tutorials and some live examples of database-related “exhibits,” one of which is this U.S. Presidents’ example that shows maps, timelines, thumbnails and other nifty displays (see the actual site for the interactive displays):

You can get Exhibit today and embed it in your own Web site (more on this to come!).

To learn more about the background to this project, please see the submitted paper, Exhibit: Lightweight Structured Data Publishing, submitted to WWW, 2007, by David Huynh, Robert Miller, and David Karger.

Gentlemen, on behalf of the community, let me say, “Thanks! Most excellent work!” It’s discoveries like these that make the Internet so worthwhile.

Posted:January 9, 2007

Firefox LogoEarly Progress in the Use of Firefox as a Semantic Web Platform

This AI3 blog maintains Sweet Tools, the largest listing of about 800 semantic Web and -related tools available. Most are open source. Click here to see the current listing!

The other day I posted a general status and statistical report on the growth and implications of Firefox extensions. This post presents more than 30 of those nearly 3,000 extensions that may have usefulness in areas related to the semantic Web. I welcome any additions.

These same extensions have also been added to an update of the Sweet Tools listing, which has now grown to more than 350 tools.

Please note that because the spreadsheet is hosted by Google, you must copy the URL to your address bar rather than clicking directly (direct clicking is anticipated in future versions of the Google spreadsheet; now works):

http://spreadsheets.google.com/ccc?key=0AqUZpo78do-GcEdGU1NTWk1nUU56ZVBGbjc0LTJ4TlE&hl=en

I should mention that I have seen some commentary within the semantic Web community of the desirability of compiling “best of” or “Top X” tools listings for the semantic Web. While such lists have their place, they are no substitute for comprehensive listings. First, semantic tools are still in their infancy and it is premature to bestow “best of” in most categories. Second, many practitioners, such as me, are working to extend and improve existing tools. This requires more comprehensive listings, not narrower ones. And, last, what may ultimately contribute to semantic meaning on the Internet may well extend beyond semantic Web tools, strictly defined. An ivory tower focus on purity is not the means to encourage experimentation and innovation. Many Web 2.0 initiatives, including tagging and social collaboration, may very well point to more effective nucleation points for expanding semantic Web efforts than W3C-compliant efforts.

These are some of the reasons that I have been happy to include simple Firefox extensions or relatively narrow format converters for my listings. Who knows? You never know when and where you might find a gem! (And I’m not speaking solely of Ruby!)

Posted:January 8, 2007

Firefox 2A New Generation of Browser Wars is Brewing

Since its release in early 2004 (with version 0.8), Firefox has achieved phenomenal success, passing the 200 million download mark in late July 2006 and now estimated at the 282 million level or so (you can see or get a copy of the counter from Spread Firefox). Though there are seasonality factors and growth, Firefox downloads are now on the order of 3.5 million to 4 million per week.

After creaming Netscape in the browser wars of the late 1990s, it is widely acknowledged that Microsoft left Internet Explorer to languish for about five years or so, giving the opening for Firefox (and earlier Opera, though at much lower market share) to gain a toehold with fresh innovations. Some of the innovative hallmarks of early Firefox were tabbed browsing, broad operating system (OS) compatibility (Linux, Windows, Mac), constant improvements, and full and complete adherence to open standards and code access.

Though, of course, downloads by no means translate into actual users (many download and then abandon and many downloads are for version upgrades), nonetheless various independent market research firms estimate steady market share gains for Firefox. According to a report last week in ComputerWorld:

Propelled by the release of its Version 2.0 in October, the free Firefox Web browser saw almost a 50% increase in use during 2006, according to one Web measurement firm. The open-source Firefox browser was used by 14% of computers online at the end of 2006, according to Aliso Viejo, Calif.-based Net Applications. That was 46% higher than its 9.6% share of the browser market at the beginning of the year.

General consensus views are that actual Firefox market share is on the order of 12% to 15% currently.

Microsoft is fighting back, with its recent release of IE v 7 adding tabbed browsing and many of the innovative features first brought by Firefox. (This has also resulted in some hilarious send-ups, such as this mock MS site touting the purchase of Firefox). If nothing else, Firefox has helped add new competitive juice to the browser market. But, there is an even more important stealthy factor underlying these trends that bodes very well indeed for Firefox’s future and ongoing threats to Microsoft.

Stealth Extensions Growth

The Mozilla team when initiating Firefox adopted a very prescient stance: to completely open up, modularize and simplify the architecture and to publish clear and easy guidelines for extending it. This stance enabled a lean-and-mean initial browser download but more importantly provided an inviting framework for extending the system through new themes and functionality. These add-ons initially started quite slowly and first consisted of infrastructure extensions. Then, as Firefox code and documentation matured, a broader group of developers began to also see this farsighted vision and began contributing their own extensions.

Today, Firefox has just passed the 2,200 mark for extensions as maintained by its own add-on directory service. This growth is accelerating, as my figure constructed from Mozilla’s online data shows:

My own research suggests only about 90% of available extensions are listed officially on the Mozilla add-on site. The remaining are company- or Web-site-specific extensions or are experimental ones maintained (often largely) by universities. It is perhaps likely that there are about 3,000 or so extensions (separate from another 1,500 or so themes) currently extant.

What is most notable with recent trends is the growth — the number of extensions has grown by what I estimate to be 123% in the past twelve months (based on Mozilla directory data) — and the comprehensiveness and sophistication of the new offerings. Extensions are now being added at about the rate of 10 per day! and in every conceivable subject area.

As with other aspects of the Internet, extension popularity follows the typical power curve. The most popular of the extensions, such as ad blockers or video download assistants, can reach 150,000 per week or more. Quite a few extensions exceed millions in total downloads and some with many version upgrades exceed 10 to 20 million downloads. The distribution by rank popularity and downloads for these 2,200 extensions is shown in the figure below:

Again, using Mozilla data, extension downloads are on the order of 3 million per week, or nearly one extension per standard Firefox download. These extensions are growing in popularity and ubiquity and some users have documented adding 200 or more extension to their basic Firefox package. (Of course, such numbers are absurd per user, and rational means for managing and organizing multiple extensions are also emerging.) Indeed, I will shortly publish another list of about 30 extensions of specific benefit to semantic Web browsing and tasks. Extension bundles of benefit to every need and interest can easily be found.

The Role of the Browser as Platform

What is most compelling about these trends is the emerging centrality of the browser as the dominant software application in most users’ computing lives. This is part of the ongoing trend to Web OSs, as my earlier post on Parakey noted (whose founders are Firefox developers with a strong background in XUL). Firefox is truly notable for the beauty and clean design as a platform for hosting Internet applications. Using XML, XUL and its chrome files, virtually every aspect of the Firefox platform is open to extension. The Javascript examples and the fact that many of the available extensions are also fully available in source code with non-limiting open source licenses provides many examples and exemplars for still further extension innovation.

So, while Microsoft may be able to match browser-wide feature innovations such as tabbed browsing, unless it chooses as well to open the IE platform to a similar extent (granted a difficult task given the inherent proprietary architecture), I believe Microsoft will be hard pressed to maintain its dominant browser market share under assault from the global developer community. Not only are we seeing the democratization of software development through open source, we are also going to increasingly see the democratization of programming as non-programmers in the conventional sense embrace the tools and techniques being innovated by the likes of the Firefox community.

Posted:January 5, 2007

AI3′s Comprehensive Listing of Semantic Web and Related Tools

This AI3 blog maintains Sweet Tools, the largest listing of about 800 semantic Web and -related tools available. Most are open source. Click here to see the current listing!

Since my first posting of 175 semantic Web tools and then an update to 250, the listing has become quite popular and an apparent asset to the semantic Web community. While this AI3 tools listing is not as precise and restricted as the “official” ESW one on the W3C’s Web site, it does contain useful adjunct tools in such areas as parsers, natural language processing, wrappers and the like that are also of potential usefulness to semantic Web practitioners.

Because of the popularity of this listing, I decided to make it easier to access and update by others in the community. Thus, I converted the listing to a permanent feature of this blog (see the Sweet Tools link to the upper left in the Main Links area) as well as posted a publicly accessible Google spreadsheet link (requires Google account!) for direct updates.

Current Listing

As of the date of this posting, I have added 42 new tools since version 5. The listings are posted as an Exhibit-based lightweight structured data publication (as explained here), which allows filtering, sorting and current statistics.

I continue to characterize the listings by: 1) FOSS (free and open source software), with about 90% of the listings being so; and 2) a categorization of the tool type. Currently, there are 27 categories listed, of which some of the tools are surely mis-characterized. If you add a tool (see below), please try to use these categories or suggest a new one to me directly.

I should also note that I track about 250 companies that provide semantic Web software (generally) under license fees. Most of those companies are NOT included in this listing; I may add these at a later point, but such tools are generally quite expensive. (To learn more about these companies, you may want to try SweetSearch, and then restrict by the ‘Company’ facet.)

Finally, you might be interested in the open source popularity of these listings. Raphael Volz published a popularity analysis of the earlier 250 tools listing based on SourceForge statistics; very interesting reading! Thanks, Raphael.

Selective v. Comprehensive Listings

I should mention that I have seen some commentary within the semantic Web community of the desirability of compiling “best of” or “Top X” tools listings for the semantic Web. While such lists have their place, they are no substitute for comprehensive listings. First, semantic tools are still in their infancy and it is premature to bestow “best of” in most categories. Second, many practitioners, such as me, are working to extend and improve existing tools. This requires more comprehensive listings, not narrower ones. And, last, what may ultimately contribute to semantic meaning on the Internet may well extend beyond semantic Web tools, strictly defined. An ivory tower focus on purity is not the means to encourage experimentation and innovation. Many Web 2.0 initiatives, including tagging and social collaboration, may very well point to more effective nucleation points for expanding semantic Web efforts than W3C-compliant efforts.

These are some of the reasons that I have been happy to include simple Firefox extensions or relatively narrow format converters for my listings. Who knows? You never know when and where you might find a gem! (And I’m not speaking solely of Ruby!)

Two Ways to Contribute

If you have new tools to add, corrections to current listings, or any other suggestions, you have two ways to contribute. The easiest way is to post a comment to this entry and I will update the listing based on your input. The second way is to access the Google spreadsheet link itself and make changes directly. I will continue to keep this spreadsheet public unless spam proves to be a problem.

Thanks for your interest and Enjoy!

Posted:November 2, 2006

Just in Time for Christmas: Vista in the Crosshairs

Or, Give your computer the bird.

Computers are frustrating. Creating documents, finding files, sharing information — why do everyday things still seem so tedious and counterintuitive?

Dave Kushner interviews Blake Ross and gets a preview of his new Parakey venture in the November issue of IEEE Spectrum. Ross, a 20-yr old wunderkind and one of the driving forces behind the Firefox browser, has teamed with Joe Hewitt of Firefox and Firebug fame to create an absolutely disruptive new approach to computing. Quoting from Kushner’s article:

Just as with Firefox, Ross began this project by asking himself one simple question: What's bad about today's software? The answer . . . resided in the gap between the desktop and the Web. . . . The problem, according to Ross, is there's no simple, cohesive tool to help people store and share their creations online. Currently, the steps involved depend on the medium. If you want to upload photos, for example, you have to dump your images into one folder, then transfer them to an image-sharing site such as Flickr. The process for moving videos to YouTube or a similar site is completely different. If you want to make a personal Web page within an online community, you have to join a social network, say, MySpace or Friendster. If you intend to rant about politics or movies, you launch a blog and link up to it from your other pages. The mess of the Web, in other words, leaves you trapped in one big tangle of actions, service providers, and applications. Ross's answer is . . . Parakey, "a Web operating system that can do everything an OS can do." Translation: it makes it really easy to store your stuff and share it with the world. Most or all of Parakey will be open source, under a license similar to Firefox's.

Thus, Parakey aims to bridge the divide between desktop operating systems and the Internet, using the browser as the common user interface. Parakey will give users the ability to easily host their own Web sites via their desktop. Even though Parakey works within the browser (all leading ones are to be supported), it actually runs on the local computer. This enables developers to do many things not allowable in a traditional Web site. By the use of easily assigned “keys”, the desktop owner can also easily and simply post or allow access to content of their choosing — from documents to photos to files — to become “public” to the distribution lists associated with these keys. Remote users get issued cookies so that their access to the local resources is seamless and without friction.

Similar to the models of the Firefox plugin or Web services, the basic Parakey platform can be easily extended. Ross and Hewitt have created a programming language, JUL (for ‘Just another User interface Language’), likely similar to the Mozilla XUL, for developers to write these components and extensions. Though the launch date for Parakey is being kept under wraps, all signals point to before January. The pre-launch company site allows interested parties to enter their email address to receive formal notification of the launch.

It is rather amazing that this article came out on the same day, yesterday, as John Milan’s blog post on on Richard McManus’s Read/Write Web blog. In that post, Milan posits Mozilla as another one of the gorillas (elephants) in the room and Adobe’s Apollo project as another “under the radar” approach to the desktop/Internet browser convergence.

All of this seems rather ironic as the world (Redmond) awaits the release of the long-delayed Windows update, Vista. Even the mighty do indeed live in interesting times.

Posted by AI3's author, Mike Bergman Posted on November 2, 2006 at 11:48 am in Adaptive Information, Open Source | Comments (3)
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