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Taming Semantic Chaos: The Quest for the eBabblefish

Dave Hollander

August, 2002


The advent of the Internet, World Wide Web, and electronic commerce has generated rapid changes in supply and demand chain relationships. Such change has created new sub-categories, including business-to-business (B2B), application-to-application (A2A), enterprise application integration (EAI), peer-to-peer (P2P) and Web Services.

At the most fundamental level, companies must exchange information within a shared and predictable process. Integration solutions today hail from different origins, some focused squarely on iHubs, others focused on internal EAI projects, still others on Web portals. Regardless of heritage, the exchange of information must seamlessly span SCM, ERP, CRM, and external systems. Moreover, implementing these connections must be quick and efficient, lest the effort of integration outweigh the business benefits.

Web Services (A Web Service is a URL-addressable resource that programmatically returns information to clients that requested it. ) are more vulnerable to the loss of interoperability than B2B and EAI because the web services model requires significantly more devices communicating more frequently and with more partners that in traditional business processes. And they are expected to interoperate with other services that have had little prior arrangement to establish a common context, semantic or process. For example, one visionary of Web Services stated:

"The most important benefit of these standards is that client applications based on products from one vendor will be able to communicate with Web services even if they are based on software from another vendor, according to Barry Goffe, Microsoft's .NET product manager. 'Web services will interoperate seamlessly, but probably not until about the third version,' Gillen adds. 'The first version will probably have a few glitches.'_ [1]

In Douglas Adams_ Hitchhiker_s Guide to the Galaxy, the Babblefish was a life form that when placed in the ear would translate spoken words so that the listener could understand them. This functionality is so essential to the interactions of carbon-based life forms that it was reproduced in silicon form as the Universal Translator for all of the Star Trek series.

In Taking B2B to the next Level: The Brick-n-Paper Challenge [3] Dave Hollander discusses the causes of semantic variability in eBusiness. The author would be happy to discuss the causes and impact of semantic variability in more detail.

"It is not about technology, it is about simple math. If the connections cost you money or time, you will never be able to get value out of it faster than the costs grow out of it -- I have said this for two years, and I call it Phipps's law, and you can quote me on it." [2]

Standards are now in their third generation, by Phipps's account. The first generation of standards, which appeared in the 1980s, was largely hardware-centric. The second generation of standards, developed in the 1990s, was business-inspired and consortium-based. The third generation of standards is emerging as a community-inspired process, showing signs of clear progress.

"The third generation of standards is still evolving," stated Phipps. "We have not quite got our arms around it yet. We have not quite learned how to make it happen in a way that is predictable and reliable, but we already know it works because we already have Apache, we already have Linux."

Perhaps the biggest change apparent in the third generation of standards is that everyone interested in the process can contribute to it. Phipps thinks everyone, not just those who will eventually make money selling things, has a right and a responsibility to be involved in the new generation of standards. Developers will have an important role in the new generation of standards, and need to be aware of what technologies should be included.


  • [1] Web services: The ASP is being replaced by the Web service provider. How come? by Tom Sullivan in InfoWorld. Published on 2001-03-01.

  • [2] BUILDING THE SWARM: Simon Phipps Spreads the Word by Heidi Dailey Published on 2001-04-19.

  • [3] Taking B2B to the next Level: The Brick-n-Paper Challenge by Dave Hollander Published on 2001-03-01.

  • Last Modified: December 18, 2002
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