Bill McDaniel, a Star in the Semantic Cosmos, Winks Out but Shines On

It is with deep regret that I learned this week of the passing of my good friend, colleague and StreamGlider co-founder, Bill McDaniel. Bill was, among many other things, a Semantic Web innovator and serial entrepreneur who co-founded a multitude of companies, shipped more than 70 products, and co-authored seven books and many more publications during his career.

I first met Bill McDaniel at the International Semantic Web Conference (ISWC), held in Galway in 2005. Bill was working as a senior research scientist at Adobe at that time. By chance, I happened to be seated across from Bill and another colleague of his from Adobe at the conference dinner, and I mentioned to them both that there were some job opportunities for researchers at DERI in NUI Galway that could be of interest. It turned out to be an opportune time for him to pursue a new challenge, as Bill joined DERI soon afterwards as a project executive in the eLearning Research Cluster.

Those who knew Bill through his Semantic Web work may be unaware of his long and varied career in information technology, with CEO, CTO and CRO roles in diverse areas such as electronic printing, wireless demand chain management, wireless retail loyalty, advanced 2D bar coding, AI-based military logistics, and of course semantically-powered mobile applications.

His career in IT stretches back nearly 40 years to 1975 when he worked as an operations programmer and manager with NCH Corp (at the time, saving the company $1M a year in order processing costs). He then joined Image Sciences in the 1980s as an R&D director, responsible for their $20M flagship product DocuMerge. From then into the 1990s he was CTO and co-owner of GenText, sold to Xenos for $12M in 1998.

Ever the entrepreneur, Bill established the first internet café in North Texas, as well as a digital recording studio. He worked with DCM Solutions, COPI and Optimus Corp in CTO roles in the early 2000s (having sold another of his own companies, GenX, to COPI in between times). He then joined Adobe as a senior scientist in 2004, where he worked in the Office of Technology and later led the Advanced Publishing Technology Group there, researching the semantic processing of documents and automatic metadata extraction. As part of his work, Bill was also the Adobe representative on the W3C Semantic Web Best Practices Group.

Bill moved to Galway in 2006, joining the Digital Enterprise Research Institute (now part of the Insight Centre for Data Analytics) at the National University of Ireland Galway. At DERI, he designed various semantic eLearning platforms and managed a large team creating semantic software. He went on in 2009 to form and lead the Applied Innovations Unit, set up to commercialise software at DERI. It was Bill along with Liam Ó Móráin at DERI who helped me acquire my first research grant through this unit. In 2010, he spun out three more companies: NKA-Decker (with Stefan Decker), SemantiFace, and SemantiStar.

Bill left DERI towards the end of 2010 and returned to Texas. We shared a common interest in science fiction: when Bill left Galway I gave him a signed Harlan Ellison book, and we often discussed the sci-fi greats and steampunk when we weren’t talking about the Semantic Web or StreamGlider in later years. (Bill also once wrote a treatise on ‘The Infiltration of Buffy into the Real World’, examining the dissemination of Buffy-speak into discursive spaces, as well as ‘Semantic Reasoning and the Buffy Paradigm’, looking at how semantic technologies could aid in making critical decisions in uncertain and unpredictable environments.)

In early 2011 along with Nova Spivack, we co-founded StreamGlider Inc., a real-time streaming newsreader app for the iPad. This was a real distributed project team, with members spread out across the US, Ireland and Russia. Bill was the CEO of StreamGlider, and we continued to work together on this project over the intervening years right up until his passing last week.

I last met Bill in hospital exactly one month ago today – on the 10th of October 2014 – when I was in Dallas for a meeting. Despite his increasingly difficult situation, he remained pragmatic and I would say even positive for the future, as we discussed various software and hardware integration problems and ideas for future research projects that he wanted to work on.

As a science fiction geek like Bill, I wonder what would have happened if we hadn’t been seated across the table from each other at that conference dinner nine years ago yesterday. In a parallel universe, perhaps another person would have sat in my place and told him about the job opportunities at DERI, or maybe something else would have drawn him to Galway (perhaps the fact that Buffy character Angel was born in the Claddagh!), and our paths would have crossed anyway.

All I know is that I am glad things worked out as they did, as many of our lives would have been much the poorer for not knowing him. As well as helping many of us in the past, his influence will continue to be felt long into our future.

You can also read Bill’s obituary and/or leave a message on the guestbook. Our thoughts go out to Bill’s wife Linda and son Ian, and all his family and friends.

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