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Web's inventor, Tim Berners-Lee, is spilling the details of its creation

by Paul Andrews
Special to The Seattle Times

The man who conceived the World Wide Web 10 years ago and toiled in near-anonymity as it transformed global communications is finally starting to get some acclaim.

Tim Berners-Lee, a 44-year-old British physicist now affiliated with the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, last year won a MacArthur Foundation "genius" grant to continue his work with the World Wide Web Consortium in setting technological standards for the Web's future. Time magazine in March cited him as one of the 100 greatest minds of the 20th century.

And his new book, "Weaving the Web" (Harper San Francisco, $26), written with Mark Fischetti, promises to put the thoughtful, understated inventor's role in proper historical perspective. Packed with personal observations and asides, the book for the first time details with illuminating insight the step-by-step evolution of one of technology's greatest accomplishments.

It was not an easy task getting the Web going, said Berners-Lee.

He talked to colleagues at the CERN laboratory in Switzerland where he worked, to software developers and to corporations. In retrospect it seems unthinkable, but the response was universally tepid.

"Before the Web existed," Berners-Lee said, "it was very difficult to explain what the Web was."

Through repeated proposals to his superiors at CERN, a major particle physics lab in Geneva, Berners-Lee was able to get the go-ahead to work on the Web. By 1991, working with a Belgian colleague, Robert Cailliau, he had constructed the basic hypertext protocols and browser-server platform that make up the Web's heart and soul today.

It was a feat that still amazes Internet pioneers.

"Tim is a great example of how one person really can change the world," said Ed Lazowska, chair of the University of Washington Department of Computer Science and Engineering. Noting that the Internet and hypertext both had been around for decades, Lazowska pointed out that only Berners-Lee had "the creativity and insight and engineering ability to bring these and other elements together to create the World Wide Web."

Berners-Lee's book traces the Web's origins back to a "musty old book of Victorian advice," "Enquire Within Upon Everything," in his parents' London-area home.

When he was old enough to understand his parents' work on the early Ferranti Mark I computer at Manchester University, Berners-Lee made the intuitive connection that computers could help link, organize and relate vast amounts of seemingly disparate information: the way creativity in the human brain leads to inspirations and ideas. In 1980 he wrote a computer program called "Enquire," an early electronic organizer, which turned out to be a precursor to the Web.

His lifelong mission reached full fruition with the World Wide Web, a name Berners-Lee came up with after rejecting more prosaic terminology such as "Mesh" and "MOI" (Mine of Information) as well as "TIM" (The Information Mine), which he considered too "egocentric."

"People are constantly disappointed that there was no `Eureka!' moment where the Web just came to me," Berners-Lee said. "But it really was an evolutionary process."

Curiously, no software companies picked up on Berners-Lee's offers to build the Web. One noteworthy example: Edinborough, Scotland-based Owl International, whose U.S. offices were in Bellevue. Owl was touting a hypermedia program called Guide running in Microsoft's Windows, which at the time was still a little-used, unpolished shell for MS-DOS.

Apple Computer's chairman, John Sculley, had produced a video called "Knowledge Navigator" featuring a Weblike system, and Microsoft Chairman Bill Gates was putting together a similar vision for the 1990s called "Information At Your Fingertips."

But outsiders initially viewed what turned out to be the Web's strength - a decentralized, free-floating, nonhierarchical approach to distributed data - as its fatal flaw.

"Everyone thought the system had to have a huge central repository of data," Berners-Lee recalled. It also would have been more expensive to build and maintain than what the Web turned out to be.

With fascinating asides and pinpoint recall, Berners-Lee describes in his book several 1992 and 1993 visits to early browser and hypertext figures, including Pei Wei at the University of California at Berkeley, developer of a browser called Viola. There was also Ted Nelson, a Harvard-educated visionary who coined the term "hypertext" and worked for nearly two decades on a Weblike system he called Xanadu.

Academics such as Wei and "Midas" browser developer Tony Johnson at Stanford University showed little interest in broadening use of their software, Berners-Lee recounts.

At the opposite end of the spectrum were Marc Andreessen and Jim Clark, co-founders of a company that evolved into Netscape Communications. Andreessen, then a University of Illinois student working at the campus-based National Center for Supercomputing Applications, and his colleagues seemed eager to popularize use of the Web, but mainly by controlling and commercializing their browser, Mosaic.

"The people at NCSA were attempting to portray themselves as the center of Web development, and to basically rename the Web as Mosaic," Berners-Lee recalls.

While from the start he envisioned people paying to use the Web, Berners-Lee never dreamed it would turn into a vast e-commerce landscape, he said.

"It was so difficult getting people to install browsers and servers, I never had any great expectations of widespread adoption," he said. Nonetheless, he "wanted the Web to cover all aspects of human interaction," including business.

Berners-Lee said he wrote the book to set the record straight on the Web's early development and to warn the public about potential subversion of his original goal of a worldwide electronic library of useful, credible information.

"The medium can be perverted, giving you what seems to be the world, but in fact is a tilted and twisted version," he said. Print journals carry a "paid advertisement" notation where advertising looks like editorial content, he noted. The Web has no corollary, but "people are getting a feel for" distinguishing between authoritative and "advertorial" content.

Can the Web be controlled by a single entity? Berners-Lee said he worries about a growing consolidation of Internet service providers under one company or conglomerate. Continued mergers such as this week's MCI-Sprint deal could give big providers the capability to limit users to only one home page, or to restrict access to - in effect, censoring - the Web's ever-expanding content.

The Web's fractallike usage patterns, suggesting infinite pockets of users within multiple cultures, may ultimately be its saving grace, he said. As long as users demand its incredible diversity, the Web will resist monopolization, he said.

"The fact everyone is discussing Microsoft and other monopolies is good," Berners-Lee said. "It keeps people aware of potential problems."

Berners-Lee, who moved to Cambridge, Mass., to run the Web consortium in 1994, said he prefers to focus on the good things technology can do for human understanding rather than money. He spends more time answering questions about it than thinking about how he has not made millions off his invention, he said.

"If your focus is financial success beyond what is needed for you and your family to have comfortable lives, then you cut down the options of what you can accomplish enormously," he added.

If money had been his focus, Berners-Lee says, he might never have been able to build the Web.

"There's a lot to be said for being able to sit at a (computer) terminal and just dream," he said.

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