The promise of the semantic web is that it will enable intelligent semantic-based solutions for better information retrieval. And we’ve talked for years about "search agents" or assistants that can help provide more intelligent retrieval. Recently, at the Web 3.0 Conference, an Israeli startup called SemantiNet, Ltd. (www.semantinet.com) unveiled its first product that the company says will enable its users "to experience something that has only been promised before—‘your Web, connected’." headup from SemantiNet (http://headup.com) is a new plug-in for the Mozilla Firefox web browser that uses semantic web capabilities to provide users with personalized, related data from all over the web in context to a current webpage. It’s a "personal discovery agent to the web" that displays an unobtrusive, yellow "+" headup icon and then presents the data as an additional layer on top of the page being viewed. Because it uses Microsoft’s SilverLight 2 technology to store information locally, headup is able to ensure that the user’s privacy is maintained.
headup is currently in a limited beta release, but it should be open for general beta use in a few months, with full launch sometime in early 2009. To illustrate how it works, the company gives the example of a person browsing for a music CD on Amazon.com. Using headup to search (semantically) behind the scenes allows the user to see related content in an overlay window. Examples include the following:
- Your Facebook who friends like this band
- A sample of the band’s latest music streamed via Pandora
- Band pictures on Flickr
- The best tickets for the concert in your city via Zvents
- Your friends who are using Twitter or FriendFeed to discuss the upcoming concert
- The restaurants near the concert hall that are top-rated by Yelp
The plug-in can use geolocation through Yahoo! and its Fire Eagle technology for accurate ‘where am I’ capabilities. Other supported services include Digg, Gmail, Google, Wikipedia, and others. SemantiNet founder and CEO Tal Keinan says it has many more services under development. He says the startup will evaluate the feedback and requests from its users and then work to expand the data sets it taps. A version for Internet Explorer is also planned.
Keinan says, "We are looking forward to this beta test period and the feedback from our users to help in getting a final version to the general public in the near future. This is a very exciting milestone towards making semantic technology a real part of the everyday Web experience—we are very proud to be taking the leadership position with headup."
He says the company hasn’t decided on monetization for the product yet. "We’re trying to convey a vision of a different internet." They plan to showcase how it works and then they may explore its possibilities for enterprise use.
The company recently announced a $3.4 million round of funding. Keinan says his team has been developing the product for 2 years—first with two people in a garage, then five in a bigger garage, and now with 18 people. The company headquarters is in Tel Aviv with a sales and marketing office in San Francisco.
Paul Glazowski, writing at the Mashable! blog (http://mashable.com/2008/10/16/semantinet-headup), notes a key advantage of the new tool. "What is particularly appealing about headup is that it presents itself as both unobtrusive and full-featured. Only when you feel the need to interact with things headup ascertains is valuable in some way will it spring to attention in the form of an expanded window filled with data. A ‘head-up display,’ if you will." And he concludes, "If you were to fill your Firefox add-on list with strict essentials, the headup download may soon rank among them. And that is because it can only grow in utility with further development."
Search expert Chris Sherman, writing at Search Engine Land, says, "I’m going to wait to take a deep dive into the technology until it becomes more widely available. But I’m impressed with what I’ve seen so far, and the tool looks like it’s well on the way to becoming an invaluable part of my searching toolkit."
After first reading about headup, I couldn’t help but be reminded of another "search assistant"—Watson, which was first introduced in 2005. Intellext’s Watson, the product of research by co-founders Jay Budzik, Ph.D., and Kristian Hammond, Ph.D., at Northwestern University, removed the burden of search from computer users. Watson, a downloadable software application, worked in the background and automatically presented users with relevant content from multiple online and offline sources. There was a corporate version and an ad-supported free version; Intellext also worked with libraries (both metasearch and library system vendors). In 2007, Intellext changed its name to MediaRiver and put its energies into marketing a new web services product called ClickSurge that uses the core technology behind Watson. ClickSurge enables web publishers to guide internet users to the publishers’ online content in a discovery-based contextual model—allowing content of any type, including video, music, pictures, or text, to be linked onto any webpage dynamically based on the unique properties of that page.
Keinan wasn’t aware of Watson or ClickSurge, but he said he would certainly check it out. And Budzik hadn’t heard of SemantiNet, but after looking at the site, he wrote in an email: "headup looks great—I love their messaging … Of course we always liked the idea of a ‘search assistant’ like Watson (and boy does SemantiNet’s product headup look similar!) but we’re happy to have found a way to make money without having to convince individual users to download a ‘nice to have’ enhancement or large enterprises to buy costly licenses." Budzik indicated that MediaRiver would be making some announcements in the near future.
An even closer comparison can be made of headup with AdaptiveBlue, which also offers a Firefox add-on called BlueOrganizer. But Keinan says that headup offers much more granularity in its connections and taps a broader content range. And he clearly sees more serious uses for headup on the horizon.
Desktop search tools have faced somewhat of a challenge in getting end users to download and try the product. In the past, I’ve experienced some buggy products that interfered with other applications on my PC. The future will be in tools like headup that leverage web tools and services to provide seamless connections to related content from within the browser and users’ normal routines. Browser plug-ins still must be downloaded but they tend to play nicer with other apps. Since headup offers users privacy by storing data locally rather than on a server in "the cloud," many users could feel it’s worth the effort to download.
Let Watson Find It for You (May 2005)
Intellext Morphs into MediaRiver to Flow Publishers’ Content (June 2007)
Web 3.0 Conference & Expo, Oct. 16–17, 2008, Santa Clara, Calif.