Web 3.0 - The Semantic, Implicit, Mobile or Distributed Web?

Web 3.0 LogoThe interest in Web 3.0 might have peaked, as my previous study indicates. In this post, I will anyhow have a look at the various definitions of Web 3.0 that people have used in the past, and possibly find out the most plausible one. For this study I limit my coverage to high-authority blogs and news sources, so-called A-listers. I might miss some important Web 3.0 definitions this way, but the scope of the study becomes more manageable.

The Method

First I did a search for "Web 3.0" in Google Reader among my current set of blog subscriptions. This search yielded roughly 100 hits, which I then manually sifted through, following any important links in these posts. To capture additional posts, especially before 2007, I scanned the results from Google Blog Search while collecting the Web 3.0 statistics for my companion post. Admittedly, I have spent several weeks on these couple of posts. At least now it is soon finished.

The Semantic Web Definition

Tim Berners-Lee on The Semantic Web 3.0The Semantic Web is one of the more popular definitions of Web 3.0. The Semantic Web is a vision originating from web inventor Tim Berners-Lee, who in a Scientific American article from 2001 writes:

The Semantic Web will bring structure to the meaningful content of Web pages, creating an environment where software agents roaming from page to page can readily carry out sophisticated tasks for users. [...]

Meaning is expressed by RDF, which encodes it in sets of triples, each triple being rather like the subject, verb and object of an elementary sentence.

In a recent blog post, Berners-Lee emphasizes that the Semantic Web is about data:

The benefit of the Semantic Web is that data may be re-used in ways unexpected by the original publisher. That is the value added.

Berners-Lee does not frequently mention Web 3.0, but in a recent talk with Paul Miller, he says:

What people are sometimes calling a Web 3.0 vision where you’ve got lots of different data out there on the Web and you’ve got lots of different applications, but they’re independent. A given application can use different data.

Marc Canter recognizes Tim Berners-Lee's new talk about data portability, and gives the following explanation of the Semantic Web and Web 3.0:

You see Tim (after inventing the web) got on a high horse about what he calls the ’semantic web’ - a web that has meta-data associated with every page. A web where intelligent interaction between humans, bots and ’smart pages’ will facilitate - well lets just say it’ll be Web 3.0.

In October 2005, Nova Spivack of Radar Networks (who recently launched their semantic application Twine) mentions Web 3.0 for the first time in a post laying out a vision of a "World Wide Database", which constitutes the 4th level of an evolution of the Web. Level 1 is the "Document Web" or Web 1.0, as he writes, Level 2 is the "Data Web", which is one part of Web 2.0, and Level 3 is:

The Semantic Web -- what we might call "Web 3.0" -- takes the Data Web one step further by providing formal languages (RDF and OWL) for defining the semantics of data structures, mapping between them, publishing data records, and searching across them (using SPARQL, a new query language).

Two years later, in October 2007, Richard MacManus asks Nova for his definition of Web 3.0, and writes:

[He said] that web 3.0 will be the 'intelligent web'. By that he means that apps are getting smarter, because data is getting smarter. It's clear he was referring to the Semantic Web [...] As for 'web 4.0', Nova said that will be when AI (Artificial Intelligence) comes into being.

Semantic Web 3.0 GirlEarlier this year, Richard MacManus pointed to an ambitious report by Project10X entitled "Semantic Wave 2008: Industry Roadmap to Web 3.0 ...". They conclude, as the title suggests, that Web 3.0 is powered by semantic technologies. The evolution of the Web is described in four stages in the following way:

The first stage, Web 1.0, was about connecting information and getting on the net. Web 2.0 is about connecting people [...] The next stage, Web 3.0, is staring now. It is about representing meanings, connecting knowledge, and putting these to work in ways that make our experience of internet more relevant, useful and enjoyable. Web 4.0 will come later. It is about connecting intelligences in a ubiquitous Web where both people and things reason and communicate together.

John Markoff of The New York Times, has written a couple of articles mentioning Web 3.0 and the Semantic Web. The first, in November 2006, which led to the first major Web 3.0 debate in the blogosphere, and the second a year later while reviewing Nova Spivack's semantic application Twine. In the second article he writes:

There is no easy consensus about how to define what is meant by Web 3.0, but it is generally seen as a reference to the semantic Web.

Dan Farber, in November 2006, is supportive of the association of Web 3.0 with the Semantic Web, and writes:

Back to Web 3.0. There will be one, and it has been associated at this point with concepts of the semantic Web, derived from the primordial soup of Web technologies. It's been a focus of attention for Tim Berners-Lee, who cooked up much of what the Internet is today, for a nearly a decade. [...]

While Web 3.0 might now have a concept to hang itself on, we will remain in the midst of the Web 2.0 era for several more years. The semantic Web is still incubating and will take many turns of the crank to become mainstream.

Also in November 2006, in response to John Markoff's article, Alex Iskold writes on the ingredients of the Semantic Web: The comprehensive description languages RDF and OWL, the lighter approach of microformats, and the importance of knowing personal preferences. Alex concludes:

So will the 'Web 3.0' be the Semantic Web? Probably. But are we there yet? Not quite. It will take some time to annotate the world's information and then to capture personal information in the right way, to enable the kinds of applications that we have discussed.

The incentive for site owners to add semantic markup to their web pages just reached a higher level, due to Yahoo's recent move to embrace semantic search technologies. Now let's have a look at some alternative definitions of Web 3.0.

APIs and Web Services Definition

Web 3.0 Site GraphThis definition is more focused towards the back end of the Web, and is generally considered a part of Web 2.0. But APIs and web services will certainly play a major role in the future of the Web.

One of the first predictions of what Web 3.0 would be like was given by Dan Gillmor in April 2005:

The emerging web is one in which the machines talk as much to each other as humans talk to machines or other humans. [...] From my perspective, this gets most intriguing when people start wiring web services together to create entirely new kinds of applications.

Gillmor mentions APIs and web services, and more visionary he talks about the web as an operating system.

Phil Wainewright, in November 2005, from a more enterprise perspective maps out a three-layered topology of Web 3.0, where the foundation layer is API services, the middle layer is Aggregation services like RSS aggregators, and the top layer is Application services that: "bring together functionality from multiple services to help users achieve their objectives in a flexible, intuitive and self-evident way." A recent example of an application service in Wainewright's sense would be the Ringside Social Application Server, which I mentioned in this highlight post.

In March last year, Alex Iskold wrote about web services as an inevitable future trend, achieved through public APIs or otherwise through screen scraping methods, when no APIs are available. Alex gave the following definition of Web 3.0:

The so called Web 3.0, which is likely to be a pre-cursor of the real semantic web, is going to change this [that information is hidden to computers]. What we mean by 'Web 3.0' is that major web sites are going to be transformed into web services - and will effectively expose their information to the world.

Hooman Radfar on Web 3.0Hooman Radfar, founder of the widget company Clearspring, wrote a nice post in February 2007 explaining the transition from Web 1.0 to Web 3.0. First, his description of the transition from Web 1.0 to Web 2.0:

The primary disruption associated with the DOT-COM boom, retroactively labeled Web 1.0, was the shift from traditional print publication mechanisms to the web as a pervasive publication mechanism. The Web 2.0 is the next step in this progression. Specifically, it is the transformation of the web from a publication mechanism into a platform for decoupled online services. Data and applications are quickly being atomized into reusable components that can be mixed and match to create new services. There is a shift from unstructured data (HTML) to structured data (web services/RSS/microformats).

Then, on the transition from Web 2.0 to Web 3.0:

If Web 2.0 is about atomization, then Web 3.0 will be all about integrated experiences in a world of atomic content and services. As the web continues to become disaggregated, there will be a burgeoning demand for tools that can help users effectively leverage these “information atoms,” together in a meaningful manner.

While finishing this post, Erick Schonfeld wrote that "Web 3.0 will be about reducing the noise," which is in perfect line with Hooman's prediction.

Also recently, Steve Rubel wrote on the future promise of web services:

However, the Picture-in-Picture Web (what some would call the web services promise of "Web 3.0") is coming on strong.

Mobile Web, Smart Devices, Sensors and Applications Definition

This definition emphasizes that the next Web will be experienced in a different way than today, and that new types of devices and applications will be involved. A common perception is that mobile devices will be more important in the future Web experience. Early on, in September 2005, Pete Cashmore pondered about the transition to Mobile 2.0 and asked:

- perhaps I’m really talking about Web 3.0, or simply the mobile internet.

Mobile Web 3.0 MastTim O'Reilly, originator of the Web 2.0 expression (through a conference), as an example of a Web 3.0 trend, refers to a study where the amount of reduction in signal strength from mobile masts was used as an indication of how much rain had fallen. More generally, O'Reilly states that:

[Web 3.0 is] when we apply all the principles we're learning about aggregating human-generated data and turning it into collective intelligence, and apply that to sensor-generated (machine-generated) data.

O'Reilly differentiates himself from many others by arguing that Web 3.0 has little to do with the Semantic Web, though he thinks it will not be called Web 3.0 once we are there:

There's definitely something new brewing, but I bet we will call it something other than Web 3.0. And it's increasingly likely that it will be far broader and more pervasive than the web, as mobile technology, sensors, speech recognition, and many other new technologies make computing far more ambient than it is today.

He concludes:

Let's just call the Semantic Web the Semantic Web, and not muddy the water by trying to call it Web 3.0, especially when the points of contrast are actually the same points that I used to distinguish Web 2.0 from Web 1.5. (I've always said that Web 2.0 = Web 1.0, with the dot com bust being a side trip that got it wrong.)

Eric Schmidt on Web 3.0Google CEO, Eric Schmidt, defined Web 3.0 at the Seoul Digital Forum conference in May 2007, as reported by ReadWriteWeb. Schmidt actually talks about the future applications, which are "pieced together". Further, to quote RWW, Schmidt says:

The apps are relatively small, the data is in the cloud, the apps can run on any device (PC or mobile), the apps are very fast and very customizable, and are distributed virally (social networks, email, etc).

Implicit Web (Attention): Personalization and Recommendation Definition

Fred Wilson coined the expression "implicit web" in a post where he refers to a statement by investor colleague Josh Kopelman: "Web 2.0 is the explicit web and Web 3.0 is the implicit web." As Wilson explains:

The implicit web is all about the value that will accrue to an Internet user when their every action is tracked, recorded, and used to provide value back to that user.

Implicit Web 3.0 TracksThe implicit web is closely related to the concept of attention as explained by Alex Iskold. By paying attention (and ignoring) things we come across on the web, we implicitly generate attention data that potentially is of great value to companies (and ourselves). Attention data can be used by web sites to create a more personalized and immersive experience, and to recommend things that are relevant to us.

In a post on the structured web from October 2007, Alex Iskold writes:

We got a clear signal from Tim O'Reilly that there is no need to continue the versioning fad and call it "Web 3.0," but still, people disagree about what's coming next. To me, what is coming is not a single thing, but a web that is characterized by several major themes. Among the evolving aspects of the new web are Semantics, Attention (Implicit Behavior) and Personalization.

Robert Scoble, in response to John Markoff's article in November 2006, expressed his disapproval of the expression Web 3.0. Nevertheless, in April 2007 he seems to favor a definition of Web 3.0 being about personalization:

Web 3.0 is about getting rid of pages altogether. Being able to make the Web YOU want or need. Is Twitter a page? Or a post? Or an SMS? A graph? Or a map display?

Brad Feld, in October 2007, writes about the definition of Web 3.0, the implicit web and how it implies personalization and recommendation:

Let’s toss “implicit web” into the mix and expand it beyond just “what people are doing” and “the way pages link to each other.”  It’s not only about people and pages – it’s about getting the computer to figure out a lot of stuff for you based on what you – and people that you “trust” or “find relevant” do.

In February 2008, Jemima Kiss, writes:

If Web 2.0 could be summarized as interaction, Web 3.0 must be about recommendation and personalization.

Josh Catone at large agrees with this assertion and concludes that it is the "promise of the Semantic Web" to deliver this personalized user experience:

When machines understand things in human terms, and can apply that knowledge to your attention data, we'll have a web that knows what we want and when we want it.

Josh also refers to a contest about defining Web 3.0, held by ReadWriteWeb in April 2007, where Robert O'Brien was declared winner in the serious category with the elaborate definition: "A decentralized asynchronous me." Josh concludes that: "What O'Brien [is] getting at is basically what Kiss [is] getting at: personalization and recommendation."

Other Definitions


Nova Spivack featured above under the Semantic Web definition, however he has also proposed to map the major versions of the Web to decades, such that Web 1.0 is the decade 1990 to 2000, Web 2.0 is 2000-2010, Web 3.0 is 2010-2020, etc. This may be a few years off. Wikipedia e.g. suggests that Web 1.0 is between 1994 and 2004, so Web 3.0 may have to wait until 2014.


Sramana Mitra provided a handy formula for Web 3.0:

Web 3.0 = (4C + P + VS).

4C is to be interpreted as the added value of four different C:s, i.e. Content, Commerce, Community and Context. P stands for Personalization and VS for Vertical Search. For an online service to be prepared for the next web, it should be good at all parts of the formula above. Sramana published several studies of online services according to this formula at ReadWriteWeb and her own blog in 2007.

3D Graphics and Virtual Worlds

Susan Wu, reporting from the SXSW panel "Web 2.0 to Web 3D", thinks that Web 3.0 is about immersion:

By immersion, I mean that people will demand experiences that are more emotional, engaging and genuine. 3D graphics are one way to create immersiveness, but not the only tool we have in our toolkit.


Web 3.0 and MediaDave Winer, in May 2007, gave a more narrow, media-focused prediction of Web 3.0:

Imho, the next step after that, I hope, is the professional media fully embracing the new media.

Content Creation

Jason Calacanis initiated the second major Web 3.0 debate in the blogosphere in October last year, with a post claiming to be the "official Web 3.0 definition":

Web 3.0 is defined as the creation of high-quality content and services produced by gifted individuals using Web 2.0 technology as an enabling platform. [...]

Web 3.0 is a return to what was great about media and technology before Web 2.0: recognizing talent and expertise, the ownership of ones words, and fairness. It's time to evolve, shall we?

"Take it All"

Of course, a possible scenario of the future Web is multiplicity, with progress in many areas. Representative of this view is Richard MacManus in his post of 10 future web trends: Semantic Web, Artificial Intelligence, Virtual Worlds, Mobile, Attention Economy, Web Sites as Web Services, Online Video/Internet TV, Rich Internet Apps, International Web and Personalization.

Also Steve Spalding, in his detailed investigations of future web trends, presents a diversified picture of the future web. Though, he has a concise definition of Web 3.0:

Highly specialized information silos, moderated by a cult of personality, validated by the community, and put into context with the inclusion of meta-data through widgets.

Marketing ploy

Web 3.0 MarketingAny great theory has its sceptics, Web 3.0 is no exception. Analysts at the Gartner Web Innovation Summit in September 2007, referred to Web 3.0 as a marketing ploy as reported by John Brodkin:

... the buzzword [Web 3.0] is really just a marketing ploy used to hype incremental improvements over the groundbreaking technologies that were labeled Web 2.0

As examples of "constituencies trying to hijack the term Web 3.0", a Gartner analyst mentioned "vendors pushing virtual words, the semantic Web and the mobile Web."


Among the Web 3.0 definitions above, which one is better or more plausible than the other? The semantic web vision is great. Useful and competitive semantic applications in search, recommendations and research for example will certainly appear in the future. There are already companies active in this area with products released, see for example this article for the current state of the Semantic Web. A significant problem with the Semantic Web, which will hinder its growth, is the complexity of the underlying technologies RDF, OWL and SPARQL, which only a small number of people are proficient in, at least compared to those with knowledge of basic HTML. Even if automatic procedures are developed to semantically annotate the existing web content, the quality may not be good enough to give useful results. More accessible, but less powerful annotation methods, like microformats, might also play a role in the future Semantic Web.

Irrespective of how big part of the web will be semantic in the future, web services and APIs will certainly play a major role. It is almost a prerequisite for a successful startup today to offer an API for some of its services. In some cases the web service will generate more traffic than the web site itself. A common example is Twitter, whose API reportedly has 10 times more traffic than the web site. Using the APIs offered by some services, others can be created, which potentially are of greater value than the original services. The number of APIs and mashups registered by ProgrammableWeb are rapidly growing. APIs and web services are my personal favorites for Web 3.0, and I think a good name for it would be the Distributed Web, signifying that a web site's content is consumed at multiple destinations through its API.

As for the Mobile Web, there is potential for growth in this area with the increased ubiquity of mobile web access. Except for mobile specific applications however, which for example make use of location information, mobile applications are generally a featureless and less usable copy of their desktop variant. I think that in a foreseeable future the Mobile Web will only be considered a complement to the standard desktop-based Web.

The implicit web, with personalization and recommendation, will undoubtedly be a part of the future web experience. Not a so big part however that it can justify defining Web 3.0, in my humble opinion.

That was my two cents worth of opinions on this controversial subject. Let's conclude with Tim O'Reilly's statement quoted above:

There's definitely something new brewing, but I bet we will call it something other than Web 3.0.

Comments section


  • Tend t agree that the line between web 2 and web is blured if such a thing exists... as the tecnologies to implement what we have done on the desktop for a while allow us to perform similar tasks on the web, so will our abilities to ajust whaat we see to our own liking... ie igoogle and such programs, the ability ot draw together seemingly random information to form new information of value is what we all seek... and there are some smart pepole achieving just that in new and exciting ways... (no quotes/links as this maily involves backend technologies at the moment unless you want to go to IBM or Microsoft developer sites)...

Comments are closed