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How the pull paradigm and the semantic web combine to help businesses face the challenges of the future.

The Problem

On the Web today, we see millions of web sites, each of which presents web pages and documents. These are simply electronic versions of the old paper-based ways of doing things: writing checks, filing taxes, looking at menus, catalog pages, magazines, etc. When you search for something on Google, you get a list of web sites that may or may not have what you’re looking for, based on keywords found in the text. You have to look at each one and decide whether it answers your question. Google doesn’t know where the information or answers are; it just knows which pages have which keywords and who links to them.

Our information infrastructure isn’t scaling up very well at all. The average person now sees over 1,000,000 words and consumes 34 gigabytes of information every day. Mike Bergman estimates white-collar workers spend 25% of their time looking for the documents and information they need to do their work. One billion people are online now, and 4 billion have mobile phones. Exhaustion of IPv4 addresses (limit is 4 billion) is predicted for sometime in 2011. By 2030, there will be a minimum of 50 billion devices connected via internet and phone networks. Our information infrastructure is built to haul electronic versions of 19th century documents for humans to read, and it’s keeping us from using information effectively.

The solution to our information problem is the semantic web and the pull paradigm.

The Semantic Web

The semantic web is nothing less than an overhaul of our information infrastructure, according to these basic principles:

  • Electronic information will become unambiguous. Another word for semantic is unambiguous. In the Semantic Web, we declare what we mean in precise, standardized terms. Data that is semantic means exactly the same thing to any system or person who uses it.
  • Data will become findable. Already we are seeing the emergence of the Open Web, where information lives online and can be found easily. There will be central repositories and central hubs that link information together. This is called “linked data in the cloud” and is the next trans-formation after services and software go online (see linkeddata.org). Humans now use 1% of all electricity to power data centers. The percentage will quadruple in ten years.
  • Data will be reusable. We’ll keep all our data online in semantic formats and use it over and over by pointing to it. Data will become like Lego building blocks of information that can be combined and recombined to suit each particular task.
  • Data will be interoperable. We won’t have to translate from one system to another. As an example, Edgar.gov will soon become a cloud-based hub for XBRL data from companies reporting results. Since everyone uses the same standards, all the software will be able to tie into the original sources of data and use it in the way that’s most meaningful to the subscriber.
  • Devices will be ubiquitous. There won’t be any more computers as we know them. Apple OS and Windows as well as Google Android, iPhone, Blackberry, TVs, and book readers will all be replaced by Net-based screens of all sizes that simply see the web and do everything online. The market for netbooks is currently growing at 40% per quarter vs notebooks’ 20%. Prices will drop through the floor. Screens will be on your wrist, on your car dashboard, or on your wall, and they will connect to the net, where everything will take place.
  • Systems will be flexible. We’ll start using flexible knowledge models and declarative systems that use data, rather than encoded processes, to drive business systems. Today’s procedure-driven software has already broken (most enterprises spend 80% of their IT budgets on maintenance). Tomorrow’s flexible systems will be adaptive – they will respond in real-time to business events and change themselves daily as the business environment changes.
  • Real time. The semantic web lets us close the gap between what happens in the real world and when we know it. When the processes and products themselves generate the data, we will go to a real-time economy that will be much more efficient than our time-lagged way of doing things today.

The Pull Paradigm

We are making the transition from pushing information to pulling it, and that will change everything. Originally, the TV networks sent out signals for shows according to a schedule that benefitted their advertisers. Then, VCRs let consumers watch when they wanted and skip the ads. Now on-demand services let consumers watch a handful of TV shows whenever they like. The future is online, where you can find and watch any video ever recorded any time you like on any device.

  • This will happen in all industries. People will pull information to them whenever, wherever, however they like. People will use online data lockers to store and guard their information, and that will replace today’s computers. It will power everything. We’ll store all our preferences there, so rather than managing music we’ll manage our preferences. This will allow us to (finally) use software agents to look for things on our behalf.
  • Many processes will invert, in favor of the customer. No longer will we “push” things through the supply chain. Instead, customers will “pull” items through. Consumers will pull services on demand. Marketing will change from outbound messaging to responding to queries. We won’t search for things; we’ll say what we are looking for and let things find us instead. Software will cost 10% of what it costs today and will be much cheaper to maintain. Everyone will be both a producer and consumer of information that becomes part of the ecosystem.
  • Account portability will be a leading indicator. When people can port their accounts from one vendor to another, the power in the relationship will flip. An early project is called Vendor Relationship Management, which will get the whole process rolling, in the same way that the video recorder did for television. Imagine if you could port your entire checking account or brokerage account to another bank and have the new bank understand everything – that’s the semantic web. It promises to cut the cost of health care by 25%, and that’s just the beginning.
  • The result is the performance economy, where companies can’t afford to be on the other side of the table from customers. In the performance economy, you gain only when your customers do. Many industries will be flattened. It’s just getting started, but this model will come to dominate in the 21st century.

If you want to learn more about pulling information and the semantic web, you have come to the right place. This site has blogs, news, reference materials, tutorials, and other resources for learning. There are forums and volunteers working to help demystify the semantic web and bring these changes to many industries. I hope you’ll join us on this exciting journey to the world of Pull.