Posted:January 31, 2011

UMBEL Vocabulary and Reference Concept Ontology Wikipedia Refining UMBEL’s Linking and Mapping Predicates with Wikipedia

We are only days away from releasing the first commercial version 1.00 of UMBEL (Upper Mapping and Binding Exchange Layer) [1]. To recap, UMBEL has two purposes, both aimed to promote the interoperability of Web-accessible content. First, it provides a general vocabulary of classes and predicates for describing domain ontologies and external datasets. Second, UMBEL is a coherent framework of 28,000 broad subjects and topics (the “reference concepts”), which can act as binding nodes for mapping relevant content.

This last iteration of development has focused on the real-world test of mapping UMBEL to Wikipedia [2]. The result, to be more fully described upon release, has led to two major changes. It has acted to expand the size of the core UMBEL reference concepts to about 28,000. And it has led to adding to and refining the mapping predicates necessary for UMBEL to fulfill its purpose as a reference structure for external resources. This latter change is the focus of this post.

There is a huge diversity of organizational structure and world views on the Web; the linking and mapping predicates to fulfill this purpose must also capture that diversity. Relations between things on the Web can range from the exact and identity, to the approximate, descriptive and casual [3]. The 16 K direct mappings that have now been made between UMBEL and Wikipedia (resulting in the linkage of more than 2 million Wikipedia pages) provide a real-world test for how to capture this diversity. The need is to find the range of predicates that can reflect and capture quality, accurate mappings. Further, because mappings also can be aided with a variety of techniques from the manual to the automatic, it is important to characterize the specific mapping methods used whenever a linking predicate is assigned. Such qualifications can help to distinguish mapping trustworthiness, plus enable later segregation for the application of improved methods as they may arise.

As a result, the UMBEL Vocabulary now has a pretty well vetted and diverse set of linking and mapping predicates. Guidelines for how these differ, how they are used, and how they are qualified is described next.

A Comparison of Mapping Predicates

Properties for linking and mapping need to differ more than in name or intended use. They must represent differences that affect inferences and reasoners, and can be acted upon by specific utilities via user interfaces and other applications. Furthermore, the diversity of mapping predicates should capture the types of diverse mappings and linkages possible between disparate sources.

Sometimes things are individuals or instances; other times they are classes or groupings of similar things. Sometimes things are of the same kind, but not exactly aligned. Sometimes things are unlike, but related in a common way. (Everything in Britain, for example, is a British “thing” even though they may be as different as trees, dead kings or cathedrals.) Sometimes we want to say something about a thing, such as an animal’s fur color or age, as a way to further characterize it, and so on.

The OWL 2 language and existing semantic Web languages give us some tools and existing vocabulary to capture some of this diversity. How these options, plus new predicates defined for UMBEL’s purposes, compare is shown by this table:

PropertyRelative StrengthUsageStandard Reasoner?Inverse Property?Kind of ThingSymmetrical?Transitive?Reflexive?
It isIt Relates to
owl:equivalentClass10equivalenceXN/Aclassclassyesyesyes
owl:sameAs9identityXN/Aindividualindividualyesyesyes
rdfs:subClassOf8subsetXclassclassnoyesyes
umbel:correspondsTo7~equivalence+ / -anythingRefConceptyesyesyes
skos:narrowerTransitive6hierarchicalXskos:Conceptskos:Conceptnoyesno
skos:broaderTransitive6hierarchicalXskos:Conceptskos:Conceptnoyesno
rdf:type5membershipXanythingclassnonono
umbel:isAbout4topicalXanythingRefConceptperhapsnot likelynot likely
umbel:isLike3similarityanythinganythingyesnonot likely
umbel:relatesToXXX2relationshipanythingSuperTypenononot likely
umbel:isCharacteristicOf1attributeXanythingRefConceptnonono

I discuss each of these predicates below. But, first, let’s discuss what is in this table and how to interpret it [4].

  • Relative strength – an arbitrary value that is meant to capture the inferencing power (entailments) embodied in the predicate. Identity (equivalence), class implications, and specific predicate properties that can be acted upon by reasoners are given higher relative power
  • Standard reasoner? – indicates whether standard reasoners [5] draw inferences and entailments from the specific property. A “+ / -” indication indicates that reasoners do not recognize the specific property per se, but can act upon the predicates (such as symmetric, transitive or reflexive) used to define the predicate
  • Inverse property? – indicates whether there is an inverse property used within UMBEL that is not listed in the table. In such cases, the predicate shown is the one that treats the external entity as the subject
  • It is a kind of thing – is the same as domain; it means the kind of thing to which the subject belongs
  • It relates to a kind on thing – is the same as range; it means the kind of thing to which the object of the subject belongs
  • Symmetrical? – describes whether the predicate for an s – p – o (subject – predicate – object) relationship can also apply in the o – p – s manner
  • Transitive? – is whether the predicate interlinks two individuals A and C whenever it interlinks A with B and B with C for some individual B
  • Reflexive? – By that is meant whether the subject has itself as a member. In a reflexive closure between subject and object the subject is fully included as a member. Equivalence, subset, greater than or equal to, and less than or equal to relationships are reflexive; not equal, less than or greater than relationships are not.

The Usage metric is described for each property below.

Individual Predicates Discussion

To further aid the understanding of these properties, we can also group them into equivalence, membership, approximate or descriptive categories.

Equivalent Properties

Equivalent properties are the most powerful available since they entail all possible axioms between the resources.

owl:equivalentClass

Equivalent class means that two classes have the same members; each is a sub-class of the other. The classes may differ in terms of annotations defined for each of them, but otherwise they are axiomatically equivalent.

An owl:equivalentClass assertion is the most powerful available because of its ability to ‘Explode the Domain[6]. Because of its entailments, owl:equivalentClass should be used with great care.

owl:sameAs

The owl:sameAs assertion claims two instances to be an identical individual. This assertion also carries with it strong entailments of symmetry and reflexivity.

owl:sameAs is often misapplied [7]. Because of its entailments, it too should be used with great care. When there are doubts about claiming this strong relationship, UMBEL has the umbel:isLike alternative (see below).

Membership and Hierarchical Properties

Membership properties assert that an instance is a member of a class.

rdfs:subClassOf

The rdfs:subClassOf asserts that one class is a subset of another class. This assertion is transitive and reflexive. It is a key means for asserting hierarchical or taxonomic structures in an ontology. This assertion also has strong entailments, particularly in the sense of members having consistent general or more specific relationships to one another.

Care must be exercised that full inclusivity of members occurs when asserting this relationship. When correctly asserted, however, this is one of the most powerful means to establish a reasoning structure in an ontology because of its transitivity.

skos:narrowerTransitive/skos:broaderTransitive

Both of these predicates work on skos:Concept (recall that umbel:RefConcept is itself a subClassOf a skos:Concept). The predicates state a hierarchical link between the two concepts that indicates one is in some way more general (“broader”) than the other (“narrower”) or vice versa. The particular application of skos:broaderTransitive (or its complement) is used to infer the transitive closure of the hierarchical links, which can then be used to access direct or indirect hierarchical links between concepts.

The transitive relationship means that there may be intervening concepts between the two stated resources, making the relationship an ancestral one, and not necessarily (though it is possible to be so) a direct parent-child one.

rdf:type

The rdf:type assertion assigns instances (individuals) to a class. While the idea is straightforward, it is important to understand the intensional nature of the target class to ensure that the assignment conforms to the intended class scope. When this determination can not be made, one of the more approximate UMBEL predicates (see below) should be used.

Approximation Properties

For one reason or another, the precise assertions of the equivalent or membership properties above may not be appropriate. For example, we might not know sufficiently an intended class scope, or there might be ambiguity as to the identity of a specific entity (is it Jimmy Johnson the football coach, race car driver, fighter, local plumber or someone else?). Among other options — along a spectrum of relatedness — is the desire to assign a predicate that is meant to represent the same kind of thing, yet without knowing if the relationship is an equivalence (identity, or sameAs), a subset, or merely just a member of relationship. Alternatively, we may recognize that we are dealing with different things, but want to assert a relationship of an uncertain nature.

This section presents the UMBEL alternatives for these different kinds of approximate predicates [4].

umbel:correspondsTo

The most powerful of these approximate predicates in terms of alignment and entailments is the umbel:correspondsTo property. This predicate is the recommended option if, after looking at the source and target knowledge bases [8], we believe we have found the best equivalent relationship, but do not have the information or assurance to assign one of the relationships above. So, while we are sure we are dealing with the same kind of thing, we may not have full confidence to be able to assign one of these alternatives:

   rdfs:subClassOf
   owl:equivalentClass
   owl:sameAs
   superClassOf

Thus, with respect to existing and commonly used predicates, we want an umbrella property that is generally equivalent or so in nature, and if perhaps known precisely might actually encompass one of the above relations, but we don’t have the certainty to choose one of them nor perhaps assert full “sameness”. This is not too dissimilar from the rationale being tested for the x:coref predicate in relation to owl:sameAs from the UMBC Ebiquity group [9,10].

The property umbel:correspondsTo is thus used to assert a close correspondence between an external class, named entity, individual or instance with a Reference Concept class. It asserts this correspondence through the basis of both its subject matter and intended scope.

This property may be reified with the umbel:hasMapping property to describe the “degree” of the assertion.

umbel:isAbout

In most uses, the most prevalent linking property to be used is the umbel:isAbout assertion. This predicate is useful when tagging external content with metadata for alignment with an UMBEL-based reference ontology. The reciprocal assertion, umbel:isRelatedTo is when an assertion within an UMBEL vocabulary is desired to an external ontology. Its application is where the reference vocabulary itself needs to refer to an external topic or concept.

The umbel:isAbout predicate does not have the same level of confidence or “sameness” as the umbel:correspondsTo property. It may also reflect an assertion that is more like rdf:type, but without the confidence of class membership.

The property umbel:isAbout is thus used to assert the relation between an external named entity, individual or instance with a Reference Concept class. It can be interpreted as providing a topical assertion between an individual and a Reference Concept.

This property may be reified with the umbel:hasMapping property to describe the “degree” of the assertion.

umbel:isLike

The property umbel:isLike is used to assert an associative link between similar individuals who may or may not be identical, but are believed to be so. This property is not intended as a general expression of similarity, but rather the likely but uncertain same identity of the two resources being related.

This property may be considered as an alternative to sameAs where there is not a certainty of sameness, and/or when it is desirable to assert a degree of overlap of sameness via the umbel:hasMapping reification predicate. This property can and should be changed if the certainty of the sameness of identity is subsequently determined.

It is appropriate to use this property when there is strong belief the two resources refer to the same individual with the same identity, but that association can not be asserted at the present time with full certitude.

This property may be reified with the umbel:hasMapping property to describe the “degree” of the assertion.

umbel:relatesToXXX

At a different point along this relatedness spectrum we have unlike things that we would like to relate to one another. It might be an attribute, a characteristic or a functional property about something that we care to describe. Further, by nature of the thing we are relating, we may also be able to describe the kind of thing we are relating. The UMBEL SuperTypes (among many other options) gives us one such means to characterize the thing being related.

UMBEL presently has 31 predicates for these assertions relating to a SuperType [11]. The various properties designated by umbel:relatesToXXX are used to assert a relationship between an external instance (object) and a particular (XXX) SuperType. The assertion of this property does not entail class membership with the asserted SuperType. Rather, the assertion may be based on particular attributes or characteristics of the object at hand. For example, a British person might have an umbel:relatesToXXX asserted relation to the SuperType of the geopolitical entity of Britain, though the actual thing at hand (person) is a member of the Person class SuperType.

This predicate is used for filtering or clustering, often within user interfaces. Multiple umbel:relatesToXXX assertions may be made for the same instance.

Each of the 32 UMBEL SuperTypes has a matching predicate for external topic assignments (relatesToOtherOrganism shares two SuperTypes, leading to 31 different predicates):

SuperTypeMapping PredicateComments
NaturalPhenomenarelatesToPhenomenonThis predicate relates an external entity to the SuperType (ST) shown. It indicates there is a relationship to the ST of a verifiable nature, but which is undetermined as to strength or a full rdf:type relationship
NaturalSubstancesrelatesToSubstancesame as above
EarthscaperelatesToEarthsame as above
ExtraterrestrialrelatesToHeavenssame as above
ProkaryotesrelatesToOtherOrganismsame as above
ProtistsFungus
PlantsrelatesToPlantsame as above
AnimalsrelatesToAnimalsame as above
DiseasesrelatesToDiseasesame as above
PersonTypesrelatesToPersonTypesame as above
OrganizationsrelatesToOrganizationTypesame as above
FinanceEconomyrelatesToFinanceEconomysame as above
SocietyrelatesToSocietysame as above
ActivitiesrelatesToActivitysame as above
EventsrelatesToEventsame as above
TimerelatesToTimesame as above
ProductsrelatesToProductTypesame as above
FoodorDrinkrelatesToFoodDrinksame as above
DrugsrelatesToDrugsame as above
FacilitiesrelatesToFacilitysame as above
GeopoliticalrelatesToGeoEntitysame as above
ChemistryrelatesToChemistrysame as above
AudioInforelatesToAudioMusicsame as above
VisualInforelatesToVisualInfosame as above
WrittenInforelatesToWrittenInfosame as above
StructuredInforelatesToStructuredInfosame as above
NotationsReferencesrelatesToNotationsame as above
NumbersrelatesToNumberssame as above
AttributesrelatesToAttributesame as above
AbstractrelatesToAbstractionsame as above
TopicsCategoriesrelatesToTopicsame as above
MarketsIndustriesrelatesToMarketIndustrysame as above

This property may be reified with the umbel:hasMapping property to describe the “degree” of the assertion.

Descriptive Properties

Descriptive properties are annotation properties.

umbel:isCharacteristicOf

Two annotation properties are used to describe the attribute characteristics of a RefConcept, namely umbel:hasCharacteristic and its reciprocal, umbel:isCharacteristicOf. These properties are the means by which the external properties to describe things are able to be brought in and used as lookup references (that is, metadata) to external data attributes. As annotation properties, they have weak semantics and are used for accounting as opposed to reasoning purposes.

These properties are designed to be used in external ontologies to characterize, describe, or provide attributes for data records associated with a given RefConcept. It is via this property or its inverse, umbel:hasCharacteristic, that external data characterizations may be incorporated and modeled within a domain ontology based on the UMBEL vocabulary.

Qualifying the Mappings

The choice of these mapping predicates may be aided with a variety of techniques from the manual to the automatic. It is thus important to characterize the specific mapping methods used whenever a linking predicate is assigned. Following this best practice allows us to distinguish mapping trustworthiness, plus to also enable later segregation for the application of improved methods as they may arise.

UMBEL, for its current mappings and purposes, has adopted the following controlled vocabulary for characterizing the umbel:hasMapping predicate; such listings may be readily modified for other domains and purposes when using the UMBEL vocabulary. This controlled vocabulary is based on instances of the Qualifier class. This class represents a set of descriptions to indicate the method used when applying an approximate mapping predicate (see above):

QualifierDescription
Manual – Nearly EquivalentThe two mapped concepts are deemed to be nearly an equivalentClass or sameAs relationship, but not 100% so
Manual – Similar SenseThe two mapped concepts share much overlap, but are not the exact same sense, such as an action as related to the thing it acts upon
Heuristic – ListOf BasisType assignment based on Wikipedia ListOf category; not currently used
Heuristic – Not SpecifiedHeuristic mapping method applied; script or technique not otherwise specified
External – OpenCyc MappingMapping based on existing OpenCyc assertion
External – DBOntology MappingMapping based on existing DBOntology assertion
External – GeoNames MappingMapping based on existing GeoNames assertion
Automatic – Inspected SVMapping based on automatic scoring of concepts using Semantic Vectors, with specific alignment choice based on hand selection
Automatic – Inspected S-MatchMapping based on automatic scoring of concepts using S-Match, with specific alignment choice based on hand selection; not currently used
Automatic – Not SpecifiedMapping based on automatic scoring of concepts using a script or technique not otherwise specified; not currently used

Again, as noted, for other domains and other purposes this listing can be modified at will.

Status of Mappings

Final aspects of these mappings are now undergoing a last round of review. A variety of sources and methods have been applied, to be more fully documented at time of release.

Some of the final specifics and counts may be modified slightly by the time of actual release of UMBEL v 1.00, which should occur in the next week or so. Nonetheless, here are some tentative counts for a select portion of these predicates in the internal draft version:

Item or PredicateCount
Total UMBEL Reference Concepts27,917
owl:equivalentClass
(external OpenCyc, PROTON, DBpedia)
28,618
umbel:correspondsTo
(direct mappings to Wikipedia)
16,884
rdf:type876,125
umbel:relatesToXXX
(31 variations)
3,059,023
Unique Wikipedia Pages Mapped2,130,021

All of these assignments have also been hand inspected and vetted.

Major Progress Towards a Gold Standard

To date, in various steps and in various phases, the inspection of Wikipedia, its categories, and its match with UMBEL has perhaps incurred more than 5,000 hours (or nearly a three person-year equivalence) of expert domain and semantic technology review [12]. As noted, about 60% (16,884 of 27,917) of UMBEL concepts have now been directly mapped to Wikipedia and inspected for accuracy.

Wikipedia provides the most demanding and complete mapping target available for testing the coverage of UMBEL’s reference concepts and the adequacy of its vocabulary. As a result, we have added to and refined the mapping and linking predicates used in the UMBEL vocabulary, and added a Qualifier class to record the mapping process, as this post overviews. We have added the SuperType class to better organize and disambiguate large knowledge bases [13]. And, in this mapping process, we have expanded UMBEL’s reference concepts by about 33% to improve coverage, while remaining consistent with its origins as a faithful subset of the venerable Cyc knowledge structure [14].

A side benefit that has emerged from these efforts — with a huge potential upside — is the valuable combination of UMBEL and Wikipedia as a “gold standard” for aligning and mapping knowledge bases. Such a standard is critically needed. For example, in reviewing many of the existing Wikipedia mappings claimed as accurate, we found misplacement errors that averaged 15.8% [15]. Having a baseline of vetted mappings will aid future mappings. Moreover, having a complete conceptual infrastructure over Wikipedia will enable new and valuable reasoning and inference services.

The results from the UMBEL v 1.00 mapping are promising and very much useful today, but by no means complete. Future versions will extend the current mappings and continue to refine its accuracy and completeness [16]. What we can say, however, is that a coherent organization and conceptual schema — namely, UMBEL — overlaid on the richness of the instance data and content of Wikipedia, can produce immediate and useful benefits. These benefits apply to semantic search, semantic annotation and tagging, reasoning, discovery, inferencing, organization and comparisons.


[1] UMBEL has been under development since March 2007, with its first release in July 2008 and its last release (v 0.80) in November 2010. Throughout its releases we have reserved incrementing the vocabulary and its ontology to version 1.00 until it was deemed “commercial”. This is the first version to meet this test. We’d like to thank our partner, Ontotext, and the RENDER project for providing assistance and resources to bring the system to this point.
[2] The basic approach is to use the DBpedia representation of Wikipedia, since its extractors have already done a great job in preparing structured data.
[3] M.K. Bergman, 2010. “The Nature of Connectedness on the Web,” AI3:::Adaptive Information blog, November 22, 2010; see http://www.mkbergman.com/935/the-nature-of-connectedness-on-the-web/.
[4] A good starting reference for some of these concepts is Pascal Hitzler et al., eds., 2009. OWL 2 Web Ontology Language Primer, a W3C Recommendation, 27 October 2009; see http://www.w3.org/TR/owl2-primer/.
[5] Such as the semantic reasoners FaCT++, Racer, Pellet, Hermit, etc..
[6] Fred Giasson first coined this phrase; see F. Giasson, 2008. “Exploding the Domain: UMBEL Web Services by Zitgist,” blog posting on April 20, 2008; see http://fgiasson.com/blog/index.php/2008/04/20/exploding-the-domain-umbel-web-services-by-zitgist/.
[7] Among many, many references, see a fairly comprehensive discussion of this issue at http://ontologydesignpatterns.org/wiki/Community:Overloading_OWL_sameAs.
[8] This predicate is designed for the circumstance of aligning two different ontologies or knowledge bases based on node-level correspondences, but without entailing the actual ontological relationships and structure of the object source. For example, the umbel:correspondsTo predicate is used to assert close correspondence between UMBEL Reference Concepts and Wikipedia categories or pages, yet without entailing the actual Wikipedia category structure.
[9] Jennifer Sleeman and Tim Finin, 2010. “Learning Co-reference Relations for FOAF Instances,” Proceedings of the Poster and Demonstration Session at the 9th International Semantic Web Conference, November 2010; see http://ebiquity.umbc.edu/_file_directory_/papers/522.pdf.
[10] For example, in the words of Tim Finin of the Ebiquity group:
“The solution we are currently exploring is to define a new property to assert that two RDF instances are co-referential when they are believed to describe the same object in the world. The two RDF descriptions might be incompatible because they are true at different times, or the sources disagree about some of the facts, or any number of reasons, so merging them with owl:sameAs may lead to contradictions. However, virtually merging the descriptions in a co-reference engine is fine — both provide information that is useful in disambiguating future references as well as for many other purposes.”
[11] The same vocabulary construct can be applied to other domain ontologies based on the UMBEL Vocabulary.
[12] The efforts with Wikipedia have been ongoing to a certain degree since the inception of UMBEL. As one example, we have been maintaining a comprehensive tracking of the use of Wikipedia for mapping and semantic technology purposes, called SWEETpedia, for many years. Applying these techniques to both UMBEL and Wikipedia has been most active over the past 18 months.
[13] See the UMBEL Annex G: UMBEL SuperTypes Documentation, which will also be slightly updated upon the new UMBEL v 1.00 release.
[14] See the ‘Use of OpenCyc’ section in the UMBEL Specifications.
[15] These sources and error rates will be detailed in a paper after the pending new release of UMBEL.
[16] Fortunately, returns on the time investment will accelerate since basic lessons and techniques have now been learned.

Posted by AI3's author, Mike Bergman Posted on January 31, 2011 at 1:18 am in Adaptive Innovation, Ontologies, UMBEL | Comments (1)
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Posted:January 17, 2011

The Hollowing Out of Enterprise ITReasons for and Implications from Innovation Moving to Consumers

Today, the headlines and buzz for information technologies centers on smartphones, social networks, cloud computing, tablets and everything Internet. Very little is now discussed about IT in the enterprise. This declining trend began about 15 years ago, and has been accelerating over time. Letting the air out of the enterprise IT balloon has some profound reasons and implications. It also has some lessons and guidance related to semantic approaches and technologies and their adoption by enterprises.

A Brief Look at Sixty Years of Enterprise IT

One can probably clock the start of enterprise information technology (IT) to the first use of mainframe computers in the early 1950s [1], or sixty years ago. The earliest mainframes were huge and expensive machines that required their own specially air-conditioned rooms because of the heat they generated. The first use of “information technology” as a term occurred in a Harvard Business Review article from 1958 [2].

Until the late 1960s computers were usually supplied under lease, and were not purchased [3]. Service and all software were generally bundled into the lease amount without separate charge and with source code provided. Then, in 1969, IBM led an industry change by starting to charge separately for (mainframe) software and services, and ceasing to supply source code [3]. At about the same time integrated circuits enabled computer sizes to be reduced, with the minicomputers such as from DEC causing a marked expansion in number of potential customers. Enterprise apps became a huge business, with software licensing and maintenance fees achieving a peak of 70% of IT vendor total revenues by the mid-1990s [4]. However, since that peak, enterprise software as a portion of vendor revenues has been steadily eroding.

One of the earliest enterprise applications was in transaction systems and their underlying database management software. The relational database management system (RDBMS) was initially developed at IBM. Oracle, based on early work for the CIA in the late 1970s and its innovation to write in the C programming language, was able to port the RDBMS to multiple operating systems. These efforts, along with those of other notable vendors (most of which like Informix no longer exist), led to the RDBMS becoming more or less the de facto standard for data management within the enterprise by the 1980s. Today Oracle is the largest supplier of RDBMS software globally, and other earlier database system designs such as network databases or object databases fell out of favor [5].

In 1975, the Altair 8800 was introduced to electronics hobbyists as the first microcomputer, followed then by Apple II and the IBM PC in 1981, among others. Rapidly a slew of new applications became available to the individual, including spreadsheets, small databases, graphics programs and word processors. These apps were a boon to individual productivity and the IBM PC in particular brought credibility and acceptance within the enterprise (along with the growth of Microsoft). Novell and local area networks also pointed the way to a more distributed computing future. By the late 1980s virtually every knowledge worker within enterprises had some degree of computer literacy.

The apogee for enterprise software and apps occurred in the 1990s, with whole classes of new applications (most denoted by three-letter acronyms) such as enterprise resource planning (ERP), business intelligence (BI), customer relationship management (CRM), enterprise information systems (EIS) and the like coming to the fore. These systems also began as proprietary software, which resulted in the “stovepiping” or creating of information silos. In reaction and with great market acceptance, vendors such as SAP arose to provide comprehensive, enterprise-wide solutions, though often at high cost and with significant failure rates.

More significantly, the 1990s also saw the innovation of the World Wide Web with its basis in hypertext links on the Internet. Greatly facilitated by the Mosaic Web browser, the basis of the commercial Netscape browser, and the HTML markup language and HTTP transport protocol, millions began experiencing the benefit of creating Web pages and interconnecting. By the mid-1990s, enterprises were on the Web in force, bringing with them larger content volumes, dynamic databases and enterprise portals. The ability for anyone to become a publisher led to a focus and attention on the new medium that led to still further innovations in e-commerce and online advertising. New languages and uses of Web pages and applications emerged, creating a convergence of design, media, content and interactivity. Venture capital and new startups with valuations independent of revenues led to a frenzy of hype and eventually the dot com crash of 2000.

The growth companies of the past 15 years have not had the traditional focus on enterprises, but on the use and development of the Web. From search (Google) to social interactions (Facebook) to media and video (Flickr, YouTube) and to information (Wikipedia), the engines of growth have shifted away from the enterprise.

Meanwhile, the challenges of data integration and interoperability that were such a keen focus going back to initial enterprise computerization remain. Now, however, these challenges are even greater, as we see images, documents (unstructured data) and Web pages, markup and metadata (semi-structured data) become first-class information citizens. What was a challenge in integrating structured data in the 1980s and 1990s via data warehousing, has now become positively daunting for the enterprise with respect to scale and scope.

The paradox is that as these enterprise needs increased, the attractiveness of the enterprise from an IT perspective has greatly decreased. It is these factors we discuss below, with an eye to how Web architecture, design and opportunities may offer a new path through the maze of enterprise information interoperability.

The Current Landscape

Since 1995 the Gartner Group has been producing its annual Hype Cycle [6]. The clientele for this research is the enterprise, so Gartner’s presentation of what’s hot and what’s hype and what is being adopted is a good proxy for the IT state of affairs in enterprises. These graphs are reproduced below since 2006 (click to expand). Note how many of the items shown are not very specific to the enterprise:

References to architectures and content processing and related topics were somewhat prevalent in 2006, but have disappeared most recently. In comparison to the innovations noted under the History discussion, it appears that the items on Gartner’s radar are more related to consumer applications and uses. We no longer see whole new categories of enterprise-related apps or enterprise architectures.

The kinds of innovations that are being discussed as important to enterprises in the coming year [7,8] tend to mostly leverage existing innovations in other areas or to wrinkle existing approaches. One report from Constellation Research, for example, lists the five core disruptive technologies of social, mobile, cloud, analytics and unified communications [7]. Only analytics could be described as enterprise focused or driven.

And, even in analytics, the kinds of things being promoted are self-service reporting or analysis [8]. In essence, these opportunities represent the application of Web 2.0 techniques to bring reporting or analysis directly to the analyst. Though important and long overdue, such innovations are more derivative than fundamental.

Master data management (MDM) is another touted area. But, to read analyst’s predictions in these areas, it feels like one has stepped into a time warp of technologies and options from a decade ago. When has XML felt like an innovation?

Of course, there is a whole industry of analysts that makes their living prognosticating to enterprises about what to expect from information technologies and how to adopt and embrace them. The general observations — across the board — seem to center on items such as smartphones and mobile, moving to the cloud for software or platforms (SaaS, PaaS), and collaboration and social networks. As I note below, there is nothing inherently wrong or unexciting per se about these trends. But, what does appear true is that the locus of innovation has shifted from the enterprise to consumers or the Internet.

Seven Reasons for a Shift in Innovation

The shift in innovation away from the enterprise has been structural, not cyclical. That means that very fundamental forces are at work to cause this change in innovation focus. It does not mean that innovation has permanently shifted away from the enterprise (organizations), but that some form of countervailing structural changes would need to occur to see a return to the IT focus on the enterprise from prior decades.

I think we can point to seven structural reasons for this shift, many of which interact with one another. While all of them are bringing benefits (some yet to be foreseen) to the enterprise, and therefore are to be lauded, they are not strictly geared to address specific enterprise challenges.

#1: The Internet

As pundits say, “The Internet changes everything” [9]. For the reasons noted under the history above, the most important cause for the shift in innovation away from the enterprise has been the Internet.

One aspect that is quite interesting is the use of Internet-based technologies to provide “outsourced” enterprise applications hosted on Web servers. Such “cloud computing” leverages the technologies and protocols inherent to the Internet. It shifts hosting, maintenance and upgrade responsibilities for conventional apps to remote providers. Initially, of course, this simply shifts locus and responsibility from in-house to a virtual party. But, it is also the case that such changes will also promote more subtle shifts in collaboration and interaction possibilities. There is also the fact that quick upgrades of underlying infrastructure and application software can also occur.

The implications for existing enterprise IT staff, traditional providers, and licensing and maintenance approaches are profound. The Internet and cloud computing will perhaps have a greater effect on governance, staffing and management than application functionality per se.

#2: Consumer Innovations

The captivating IT-related innovations at present are mobile (smartphones) and their apps, tablets and e-book readers, Internet TV and video, and social networks of a variety of stripes. Somewhat like the phenomenon of when personal computers first appeared, many of these consumer innovations have applicability to the enterprise, though only as a side effect.

It is perhaps instructive to look back at the adoption of PCs in the enterprise to understand the possible effect of these new consumer innovations. Central IT was never able to control and manage the proliferation of personal computers, and only began to understand years later what benefits and new governance challenges they brought. Enterprise leaders will understand how to embrace and extend today’s new consumer technologies for the enterprise’s benefits; laggards will resist to no avail.

The ubiquity of computing will be enormously impactful on the enterprise. The understanding of what makes sense to do on a mobile basis with a small screen and what belongs on the desk or in the office is merely a glimmer in the current conversation. However, in the end, like most of the other innovations noted in this analysis, the enterprise will largely be a reactive player to these innovations. Yes, the implications will be profound, but their inherent basis are not grounded in unique enterprise challenges. Nonetheless, adapting to them and changing business practice will be critical to asserting enterprise leadership.

#3: Open Source

Open Source Growth

Ten years ago open source was largely dismissed in the enterprise. About five years ago VCs and others began funding new commercial open source ventures, even while there were still rear guard arguments from enterprises resisting open source. Meanwhile, as the figure to the right shows, open source projects were growing exponentially [10].

The shift to open source in the enterprise, still ongoing, has been rapid. Within 5 years, more than 50% of enterprise software will be open source [11] . According to an article in Fortune magazine last year [12], a Forrester Research survey found that 48% of enterprise respondents were using open source operating systems, and 57% were using open source code. A similar Accenture survey of 300 large public and private companies found that half are committed to open source software, with 38% saying they would begin using open-source software for “mission-critical” applications over the next 12 months.

There are likely many reasons for this shift, including the Internet itself and its basis in open source. Many of the most successful companies of the past 15 years including Amazon, Google, Facebook, and virtually any large Web site has shown excellent performance and scalability building their IT infrastructure around open source foundations. Most of the large, existing enterprise IT vendors, notably including IBM, Oracle, Nokia, Intel, Sun (prior to Oracle), Citrix, Novell (just acquired by Attachmate) and SAP have bought open source providers or have visible support for open source initiatives. Even two of the most vocal proprietary source proponents of the past — HP and Microsoft — have begun to make moves toward open source.

The age of proprietary software based on proprietary standards is dead. The monopoly rents formerly associated with unique, proprietary platforms and large-scale enterprise apps are over. Even where software remains proprietary, it is embracing open standards for data interchange and APIs. Traditional enterprise apps such as content management, business intelligence and ETL, among all others, are being penetrated by commercial open source offerings (as examples, Alfresco, Pentaho and Talend, respectively). The shift to services and new business models appears to be an inexorable force.

Declining profit margins, matched with the relatively high cost of marketing and sales to enterprises, means attention and focus have been shifting away from the enterprise. And with these shifts in focus has come a reduction in enterprise-focused innovation.

#4: Slow Development Cycles in Enterprise

It is not unusual to find deployed systems within enterprises as old as thirty years [13]. So long as they work reasonably well, systems once installed — along with their data — tend to remain in operation until their platforms or functionality become totally obsolete. This leads to rather lengthy turnover cycles, and slow development cycles.

Slow cycles in themselves slow innovation. But slow development cycles are also a disincentive to attract the most capable developers. When development tends to focus on maintenance and scripts and more routines of the same nature, the best developers tend to migrate elsewhere (see next).

Another aspect of slow development cycles is the imperative for new enterprise IT to relate to and accommodate legacy systems — again, including legacy data. This consideration is the source of one of the negative implications of a shift away from innovation in the enterprise: the orphaning of existing information assets.

#5: What’s Hot: Developers

Arguably the emphasis on consumer and Internet technologies means that is where the best developers gravitate. Developing apps for smartphones or working at one of the cool Internet companies or joining a passionate community of open source developers is now attracting the best developers. Open source and Web-based systems also lead to faster development cycles. The very best developers are often the founders of the next generation startups and Web and software companies [14].

While, of course, huge numbers of computer programmers and IT specialists are hired by enterprises each year, the motivations tend to be higher pay, better benefits and more job security. The nature of the work and the bureaucracy and routine of many IT functions require such compensation. And, because of the other shifts noted elsewhere, even the software startups that are able to attract the most innovative developers no longer tend to develop for enterprise purposes.

Computer science students have been declining in industrialized countries for some time and that is the category of slowest growth in IT [14]. Meanwhile, existing IT personnel often have expertise in older legacy systems or have been focused on bug fixes and more prosaic tasks like report writing. Narrow job descriptions and work activities also keep many existing IT personnel from getting exposed to or learning about new trends or innovations, such as the semantic Web.

Declining numbers of new talent, plus declining interest by that talent, combined with (often) narrow and legacy expertise of existing talent, creates a disappointing storm of energy and innovation to address enterprise IT challenges. Enterprises have it within their power to create more exciting career opportunities to overcome these limitations, but unfortunately IT management often also appears challenged to get on top of these structural forces.

#6: What’s Hot: Startups

Open source and Internet-based systems have reduced the capital necessary for a new startup by an order of magnitude or so over the past decade. It is now quite possible to get a new startup up and running for tens to hundreds of thousands of dollars, as opposed to the millions of years past. This is leading to more startups, more startups per innovator, and quicker startup and abandonment cycles. Ideas can be tried quickly and more easily thrown away [15].

These dynamics are acting to accelerate overall development cycles and to cause a shift in funding structures and funding amounts by VCs and angels. The kind of market and sales development typical for many enterprise sales does not fit well within these dynamics and is a countervailing force for more capital when all trends point the other way.

In short, all of this is saying that money goes to where the returns are, and returns are not of the same basis as decades past in the enterprise sector. Again, this means a hollowing out of innovation for enterprises.

#7: Declining Software Rents and Consolidation

As an earlier reference noted [4], software revenues as a percent of IT vendor revenues peaked in about the mid-1990s. As profitability for these entities began to decline, so did the overall attractiveness of the sector.

As the next chart shows, coincident with the peak in profitability was the onset of a consolidation trend in the enterprise IT vendor sector [16]. The chart below shows that three of the largest IT vendors today — Oracle, IBM and HP — began an acquisition spree in the mid-1990s that has continued until just recently, as many of the existing major players have already been acquired:

Notable acquisitions over this period include: Oracle — PeopleSoft, Siebel Systems, MySQL, Hyperion, BEA and Sun; HP — EDS, 3Com, VeriFone, Compaq, Palm and Mercury Interactive; IBM — Lotus, Rational, Informix, Ascential, FileNet, Cognos and SPSS. Published acquisition costs exceeded $130 billion, mostly for the larger deals. But terms for 75% of the 262 transactions were not disclosed [16]. The total value of these consolidations likely approaches $200 billion to $300 billion.

Clearly, the market is now favoring large players with large service components. This consolidation trend does belie one early criticism of open source v proprietary software: proprietary software is likely to be better supported. In theory this might be true, but vanishing suppliers does not bode well for support either. Over time, we may likely see successful open source projects showing greater longevity than many IT vendors.

Positive Implications from the Decline

This discussion is not a boo-hoo because the heyday of enterprise IT innovation is past. Much of that innovation was expensive, often failed to achieve successful adoption, and promoted walled gardens and silos. As someone who ran companies directly involved in enterprise software sales, I personally do not miss the meetings, the travel, the suits and the 18-month sales cycles.

The enterprise has gained much from outside innovation in the past, from the personal computer to LANs and browsers and the Internet. To be sure, what we are now seeing with mobile phones has more computing power than the original Space Shuttle [17], and continued mashup and social engagement innovations will have unforeseen and manifest benefits for enterprises. I think this is unalloyed goodness.

We can also see innovations based on the Internet such as the semantic Web and its languages and standards to promote interoperability. Breaking these barriers is critically needed by enterprises of the future. Data models such as RDF [18] and open world mindsets that better accommodate uncertainty and breadth of information [19] can only be seen as positive. The leverage that will come from these non-enterprise innovations may in the end prove to be as important as the enterprise-specific innovations of the past.

Negative Implications from the Decline

Yet a shift to Internet and consumer IT innovation leaves some implications. These concerns have to do with the unique demands and needs of enterprises. One negative implication is that a diminishing supplier base may not lead to actual deployments that are enterprise-ready or -responsive.

The first concern relates to quality and operational integrity. There is an immense gulf between ISO 9000 or Six Sigma and, for example, the “good enough” of standard search results on the Web. Consumer apps do not impose the same thresholds for quality as demanded by paying bosses or paying customers. This is not a value judgment; simply a reality. I see it reflected in the quality of tools and code for many new innovations today on the Web.

Proofs-of-concept and “cool” demos work well for academic theses or basic intros to new concepts. The 20% that gets you 80% goes a long way to point the way to new innovation; but the 80% to get to the last 20% is where enterprises bet their money. Unfortunately, in too many instances, that gap is not being filled. The last 20% is hard work, often boring, and certainly not as exciting as the next Big Thing. And, as the trends above try to explicate, there are also diminishing rewards for living in that territory.

A similar and second concern pervades data interoperability. Data interoperability has been the central challenge of enterprise IT for at least three decades. As soon as we were able to interconnect systems and bridge differences in operating systems and data schema, the Holy Grail has been breaking information barriers and silos. The initial attempts with proprietary data warehouses or enterprise-wide ERP systems were wrongly trying to apply closed solutions to inherently open problems. But, now, finally when we have the open approaches and standards in hand for bridging these gaps, the attractiveness of doing so for the enterprise seems to have vanished.

For example, we see demos, tools and algorithms being published all over the place that show promising advances or improvements in the semantic Web or linked data (among other areas; see [20]). Some of these automated techniques sound wonderful, but real systems require the hard slog of review and manual approval. Quality matters. If Technique A, say, shows an improvement over Technique B of 5%, that is worth touting. But even at 98% percent accuracy, we will still find 20,000 errors in a population of 1 million items. Such errors will simply not work in having trains run on time, seats be available on airplanes, or inventory get to their required destinations.

What can work from the standpoint of linkage or interoperability on the Web according to consumer standards will simply not fly for many enterprises. But, where are the rewards for tackling that hard slog?

Another concern is security and differential access. Open Web systems, bless their hearts, do not impose the same access and need to know restrictions as information systems within enterprises. If we are to adopt Web-based approaches to the next-generation enterprise — a position we strongly advocate — then we are also going to need to figure out how to marry these two world views. Again, there appears to be an effort-reward mismatch here.

What Lessons Might be Drawn?

These observations are not meant to be a polemic, but a statement of more-or-less current circumstances. Since its widescale adoption, the major challenge — and opportunity — of enterprise IT has been how to leverage the value within the enterprise’s existing digital information assets. That challenge is augmented today with the availability of literally a whole world of external digital knowledge. Yet, the energy and emphasis for innovation to address these challenges has seemingly shifted to consumers and away from the enterprise.

Economics abhors a vacuum. I think two responses may be likely to this circumstance. The first is that new vendors will emerge to address these gaps, but with different cost structures and business models. I’d like to think my own firm, Structured Dynamics, is one of these entities. How we are addressing this opportunity and differences in our business model we will discuss at a later time. In any case, any such new player will need to take account of some of the structural changes noted above.

Another response can come from enterprises themselves, using and working the same forces of change noted earlier. Via collaboration and open source, enterprises can band together to contribute resources, expertise and people to develop open source infrastructures and standards to address the challenges of interoperability. We already see exemplars of such responses in somewhat related areas via initiatives such as Eclipse, Apache, W3C, OASIS and others. By leveraging the same tools of collaboration and open data and systems and the Internet, enterprises can band together and ensure their own self-interests are being addressed.

One advantage of this open, collaborative approach is that it is consistent with the current innovation trends in IT. But the real advantage is that it works and is needed. Without it, it is unclear how the enterprise IT challenge — especially in data interoperability — will be met.


[1] Though calculating machines and others extend back to Charles Babbage and more relevant efforts during World War II, the first UNIVAC was delivered to the US Census Bureau in 1951, and the first IBM to the US Defense Department in 1953. Many installations followed thereafter. See, for example, Lectures in the History of Computing: Mainframes.
[2] As provided by “information technology” (subscription required), Oxford English Dictionary (2 ed.), Oxford University Press, 1989, http://dictionary.oed.com/, retrieved 12 January 2011.
[3] See further the Wikipedia entry on proprietary software.
[4] M.K. Bergman, 2006. “Redux: Enterprise Software Licensing on Life Support,” AI3:::Adaptive Information blog, June 2, 2006. See http://www.mkbergman.com/111/the-death-of-enterprise-software-licensing/.
[5] The combination of distributed network systems and table-oriented designs such as Google’s BigTable and related open source Hadoop, plus many scripting languages, is leading to the resurgence of new database designs including NoSQL, columnar, etc.
[6] The Gartner Hype Cycle is a graphical representation of the maturity, adoption and application of technologies. It proceed through five phases beginning with a technology trigger and then, if successful, ultimately adoption. The peak of the curve represents the biggest “hype” for the innovation.The information in these charts is courtesy of Gartner. The sources for the charts are summary Gartner reports for 2010, 2009, 2008, and 2006. 2007 was skipped to provide a bit longer time horizon for comparison purposes.
[7] As summarized by Klint Finley, 2011. “How Will Technology Disrupt the Enterprise in 2011?,” ReadWriteWeb Enterprise blog, January 4, 2011.
[8] Jaikumar Vijayan, 2011. “Self-service BI, SaaS, Analytics will Dominate in 2011,” in Computerworld Online, January 3, 2011.
[9] According to Google on January 12, 2011, there were 251,000 uses of this exact phrase on the Web.
[10] Amit Deshpande and Dirk Riehle, 2008. “The Total Growth of Open Source,” in Proceedings of the Fourth Conference on Open Source Systems (OSS 2008), Springer Verlag, pp 197-209; see http://dirkriehle.com/wp-content/uploads/2008/03/oss-2008-total-growth-final-web.pdf.
[13] For example, according to James Mullarney in 2005, “How to Deal with the Legacy of Legacy Systems,” the average age of IT systems in the insurance industry was 23 years. In that same year, according to Logical Minds, a survey by HAL Knowledge Systems showed the average age of applications running core business processes to be 15 years old, with almost 30 per cent of companies maintaining software that is 25 years old or older.
[14] For general IT employment trends, see the Bureau of Labor Statistics; for example, http://www.bls.gov/oco/ocos303.htm.
[15] See, for example, Paul Graham, 2010. “The New Funding Landscape,” Blog post, October 2010.
[16] This chart was constructed from these sources: Oracle — http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/List_of_acquisitions_by_Oracle; IBM — http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/List_of_mergers_and_acquisitions_by_IBM; and HP — http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/List_of_acquisitions_by_Hewlett-Packard. Of course, other acquisitions occurred by other players over this period as well.
[17] Current smartphones may have around 2 GHz in processing power and 1 GB of RAM; see for example, this Motorola press release. By comparison to the Shuttle, see http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Space_Shuttle#Flight_systems.
[18] M. K. Bergman, 2009. “Advantages and Myths of RDF,” AI3:::Adaptive Information blog, April 8, 2009.
[19] M. K. Bergman, 2009. “The Open World Assumption: Elephant in the Room,” AI3:::Adaptive Information blog, Dec. 21, 2009.
[20] See, for example, the Sweet Tools listing of 900 semantic Web and -related tools on this AI3:::Adaptive Information blog.