Tim Berners-Lee, who invented the World Wide Web in 1990, now leads a Web-standards consortium based at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology...
Tim Berners-Lee, who invented the World Wide Web in 1990, now leads a Web-standards consortium based at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT). We caught up with him via e-mail:
Q: How do you feel about the way your baby has turned out?
A: I used to say a few years ago that the Web was in its adolescence. It has matured since then, but if adult, it’s certainly young. It has tested its own boundaries and in some cases, such as the rash of phishing (scams to steal account numbers and passwords), exceeded them.
Q: What will the Web look like 10 years from now? What would you like to see?
A: I have been eager to see the Web emerge as a more collaborative environment. At the start of my work 15 years ago, I created a tool that was both a browser and an editor because I wanted to be able to edit as I went along, making connections to other resources or ideas before they were lost in the moment.
There is still some distance to go before that idea gets put into large-scale practice. But blogs and wikis are a good step in that direction. I’d also like to see the Web allow data integration across and between people and enterprises. This is what we call the semantic Web, and it is starting to take off now.
Q: The late Michael Dertouzos of MIT wrote that you were unique. While everyone else schemed, “How do I make the Web mine?” you asked, “How can I make the Web yours?” But why shouldn’t you get rich from your creation?
A: Michael was also unique!
Two things, I suppose. Firstly, the ethos of the development of all the Internet protocols to date (such as IP, TCP, FTP and e-mail) had all been one of contribution to the common good: a wonderful spirit of working together.
Secondly, pragmatics. I was asking something huge: for everything of note to be given a URL (Web address) to be put into one information space. You can’t ask something that big and also ask royalties. Immediately, large companies and geeks in garages alike would have dropped it like a hot potato. The WWW (World Wide Web) would never have got to critical mass.
Q: Your book, “Weaving the Web,” talks a lot about your fascination with making connections. Where did this obsession come from?
A: Everyone has it in different ways, I think. I wouldn’t call it an obsession. One particular interest at one point was that the brain remembers random associations so well, and computers didn’t at the time. That may have come from my father’s interest in how the brain worked.
Q: Your parents were mathematicians and programmers. What was their reaction to the Web?
A: They are great parents and have always been proud of things I have done, Web included.
Q: What was your basic concept for the Web?
A: The Web is an information space.
That is, it is a set of bits of information (Web pages, documents, sounds, etc.) which each have names — URLs. The URL is the fundamental standard which defined the Web. HTTP and HTML and many other things then exploit that to make the Web you see.
Hypertext systems before the Web were all built so you could have no “Error 404 — page not found” errors. They made sure every link went somewhere.
But they did this by having a central coordinating database to keep track of everything, and as a result, they got more difficult to use as they got bigger. You couldn’t just add a new bit on without asking anyone. So, if you like, while it is frustrating to get “Error 404,” without it, the Web wouldn’t work.
Q: What do you like most about the Web?
A: It’s not the Web itself, it’s the amazing spirit of the people who have been involved in developing it together. Coming from all sorts of countries and situations, connected by the Internet and occasional meetings, there has been a tremendous spirit of excitement, unbounded opportunity and collaboration.
Q: What do you dislike most about it? What are your greatest fears for the Web?
A: One of the concerns I have is that the Web remains free — free in the sense that people will continue to have access to the full range of information available on it. There are legitimate concerns when access and services are controlled by a shrinking number of entities. It may be that an individual doesn’t even realize they are encouraged to find only certain Web sites because the service provider has signed an agreement with a subset of vendors.
In some ways, it’s akin to media literacy — you need to understand the connections and leanings of a publication in order to determine the veracity and angle of its coverage. The ability to see what is out there, unscreened, is utterly necessary and is what the Web is really about. Then screening can come in, but only with the consent of the user.
It is also really important that the Web infrastructure remains royalty-free. Every now and again, some company tried to make out that it has invented and owns some basic idea in the Web such as hypertext links to subscription systems. Most often, these ideas are decades if not centuries old, but the threat of royalty fees can be like a blight on the uptake of new ideas and new standards that create the new markets.
Fortunately, companies large and small have in general realized how important the royalty-free infrastructure is to making huge new markets.
Q: You toyed with naming your creation Enquire Within Upon Everything. How did you settle on calling it the World Wide Web? How do you feel about that choice?
A: “Enquire Within Upon Everything” was the name of a musty old book of Victorian advice I had noticed as a child in my parents’ house outside of London. “Enquire” was a nonnetworked program I developed in 1980, which was written in Pascal. The original disk of that program was lost.
I toyed with a variety of names that would suggest the kind of structure I imagined this new system would have. Mesh, or Information Mesh, was one idea I used in the original written proposal at CERN (a European physics lab), but it sounded a little too much like “mess.”
I thought of Mine of Information, or MOI, but “moi” in French means “me,” and that was too egocentric. An alternative was The Information Mine, but that acronym, TIM, was even more egocentric! …
I was also looking for a characteristic acronym. I decided to start every program involved in the system with HT for hypertext.
Then another name came up as a simple way of representing global hypertext. This name was used in mathematics as one way to denote a collection of nodes and links in which any node can be linked to any other. The name reflected the distributed nature of the people and the computers that the system could link. It offered the promise of a potentially global system.
Friends at CERN gave me a hard time, saying it would never take off, especially since it yielded an acronym that was nine syllables long when spoken.
Nonetheless, I decided to go forward with the name World Wide Web, and I am glad I did.