Swirrl is a wiki-like application that was built using Semantic Web technologies and launched as a beta last week. We heard about it in the comments to our post about the lack of commercial RDF applications on the Web.
As with most Semantic Web apps, it's a little difficult to describe what Swirrl is. On its homepage Swirrl is said to be "like a wiki, but better." The further explanation is that it's a web application that "allows your team to store, share, edit and analyze information." Basically its a data collaboration app. The main feature of Swirrl is a wiki interface, for editing web pages. But it also has spreadsheet and database functionality too.
This hybrid wiki/office functionality is reminiscent of JotSpot (which was acquired by Google in Oct 2006 and eventually morphed into Google Sites) and Dabble DB (a similarly hard to describe amalgam of wiki/spreadsheet/database).
Swirrl is focused on business use, rather than consumer use. The business model for Swirrl is premium accounts, from $24 to $198 per month. There is however a free version, which we played with to find out what Swirrl does.
Company rep Bill Roberts explained the purpose of Swirrl:
"We're aiming to lower the bar for efficient sharing and re-use of information in an organisation, to try to find the middle ground between individuals with their own copies of spreadsheets (easy, but poor for collaboration) and complex database systems (good collaboration, but big investment needed and can be inflexible in the face of change)."
Roberts went on to outline how Swirrl is using RDF to achieve this type of "middle ground" business collaboration:
"...we were looking for a lightweight flexible way to put some sort of a data model behind a collection of information, so it can be exchanged and combined in meaningful ways. After some early prototypes using a variety of approaches, we settled on RDF."
According to Roberts, using RDF "behind the scenes" was the best way for Swirrl to enable data collaboration inside and outside an organization. "Our main aim is to improve collaboration amongst a group of colleagues", said Roberts, "but of course exchanging information with the 'outside world' is important, and therefore it makes sense to use a standard way of representing data and it's structure."
In our tests, it was difficult to use Swirrl. The idea is that users will be entering semantic mark-up, without necessarily knowing they're doing it. The presence of RDF can be glimpsed in the user interface, with references to 'Statements', 'Things', 'Properties', 'Types'. However the problem for ordinary users of this app is that those aren't necessarily intuitive concepts, when using a Web UI with text fields for input. We also tried uploading a couple of spreadsheets, but got errors such as "The file was improperly formatted" that had no further explanation. This may be because the app is so new that there are a few bugs around.
To be fair, using Swirrl becomes clearer when you view the help files. So we can imagine that with a bit of training, business users would get used to the system. When they do, users may start to appreciate the concept of entering semantic meaning into a spreadsheet-like application. Provided they can get past what looks to be a relatively steep learning curve. For businesses, the potential value is in linking this data with external data sets in the future.
We think it's too early to judge how good Swirrl is, but it's definitely worth highlighting to our readers as an example of a commercial RDF Semantic Web app. They do exist! Let us know in the comments what you think of Swirrl, and whether you can see it being used in a business setting.