Demoing Bing @ SemTech
Image by official_powerset via Flickr

Today’s my first day back at home, following a tour of Silicon Valley and a couple of days in London to present at the ISKO UK Conference.

The main event was this year’s Semantic Technology Conference in San Jose, which I’ve already partially covered via various blog posts over on ZDNet. More on this in a moment.

On the travel front, it was great to chat with JP Rangaswami on the flight out and even greater (no offence, JP!  ;-) ) to recline in comfort on the overnight return journey after a very welcome upgrade from British Airways.

Before and after the conference, I visited several Silicon Valley companies both new and old. Despite evidence of the economic situation at every turn (most shockingly, actually, in the boarding up of two fixtures of many a trip to San Francisco; the Disney Store on Union Square and the big Virgin Megastore on Market) the people I spoke with were full of ideas and enthusiasm for the journey ahead. In so many areas of technology, the edge cases and the cool or interesting concepts are moving towards the mainstream. Mobile, clearly, is everywhere, and there is a growing recognition of the value in structure, linking and data or application portability. We’re even, finally, seeing some viable business models based upon something other than just plastering sites with Ads. Painful as it has been for far too many individuals, this latest economic hiccup appears increasingly likely to have been very good for a tech industry that had become a little too complacent, far too smug, and rather caught up in tech for tech’s sake. The survivors are leaner, meaner, and far more focussed upon understanding the areas in which they bring sustainable value to audiences of a viable size. That’s a good thing, and I can only hope that we remember the lessons we’ve learned when the champagne starts flowing and the car parks of tech startups once again fill with Porsches, Ferraris and Teslas…

It’s a testament to the topicality of the subject matter and the hard work of the team at Wilshire that attendance was actually higher than last year, and the buzz of conversation during the event would suggest that the upward trend shows every sign of continuing. Speaking during a special live episode of the Semantic Web Gang that we recorded on stage just before the end of the conference, Wilshire‘s Tony Shaw discussed attendance figures and the breakdown of different audience categories. This podcast should be online shortly. In the midst of this collective tightening of belts, it’s not surprising that the freebie/schwag haul was the lowest I’ve ever seen. I understand why. The children, however, were sorely disappointed and distinctly unimpressed by my attempts at rationalisation. I think they feel that the technology sector owes them schwag.

With a programme that began at 0730 each morning and proceeded through the day with as many as ten parallel sessions, there was something for everyone. Free proper coffee helped to lubricate the corridor conversations, and I probably drank rather too many vanilla lattes as I tended to find myself engaged in those conversations when my panel moderating duties permitted. Keynote sessions each day addressed different aspects of the space, from the Toms (Tague and Gruber) discussing where we’ve been and one aspect of where we might go, through an ultimately disappointing assemblage of Semantic Search’s big hitters to Nova Spivack’s chat with Wolfram Alpha’s Russell Foltz-Smith and the final morning’s (promising, yet disappointingly vague) announcements from the New York Times.

I didn’t see (much) radical innovation, and I didn’t see any great technological leaps forward from last year. However, what I saw again and again was evidence of maturity, adoption and real-world deployment. Ideas that might have seemed a little unrealistic or risqué just a year ago had become an accepted part of the conversation. The Web was more dominant than in previous years. As Ian Davis has often described it, we’ve seen a welcome and perhaps overdue shift from the Semantic (Web) toward (Semantic) Web. Efforts like Freemix package existing capabilities and bring them within reach of the next wave of adopters. Linked Data was on the lips of many, and Mills Davis was amongst those keen to encourage the sector’s serious engagement with the accelerating enthusiasm for Linked Data in Government on both sides of the Atlantic. I agree with him, and look forward to playing my part in ensuring that something real follows the political rhetoric of recent weeks. Although the terminology is different, in many ways it’s the realisation of the vision we set out within the Common Information Environment at the beginning of this decade. I’m trying to line up podcasts with some of those involved inside the US and UK Governments, so watch this space…

Thanks to Tony Shaw, Eric Franzon and the team at Wilshire for once again laying on a great event. Thanks to the panelists on all the panels I moderated for making my job exceedingly easy. And thanks to all of those I met for some great conversation, much of which I’m still digesting.

Roll on next year, when the conference moves out of San Jose to take over the San Francisco Hilton from 21-25 June. See you there!

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