The designer of the World Wide Web, Tim Berners-Lee, would like to see the global content network morph into a giant transactional database, he says.

The British researcher described his vision of what he calls the semantic web in a keynote speech at the 13th annual World Wide Web conference this week. He presented the design in a paper written six years ago, and has been working with the World Wide Web Consortium (W3C) on steadily laying its framework.

The past few months have seen an important milestone for the semantic web’s development. Two foundational standards, the resource description framework (RDF) and the web ontology language (OWL), became W3C recommendations in February, indicating the group considers them ready for widespread adoption.

"There was a lot of pain and sweat and tears and discussions and arguments" in getting RDF and OWL to the level of accepted standards, Berners-Lee said. He expects phase two, now in progress, to be more fun: "I hope it'll be very exciting. We'll start to get more satisfaction back from actually building applications and seeing them connect together."

The aim of the semantic web is to add metadata to information placed online, so it can be read by machines. A number of interactions could then be automated. For example, an online catalogue could connect to customers' order history and preferences as well as their calendars, to automatically pick available times for a product delivery.

Projects involving semantic web technologies are already under way at several organisations. Boeing is exploring semantics-based applications for information and application integration and interoperability and knowledge management.

Adobe Systems has built into its products Adobe Extensible Metadata Platform (XMP), an RDF-based metadata system that links contextual information with content files.

Partly as a proof-of-concept for the semantic web, conference organisers are developing a Web archive of photos from the current and past gatherings, complete with metadata annotations.

Berners-Lee encouraged attendees to go out and semantic web-enable anything they can online.

"We're going to have to bootstrap things in the short term," he said.