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