From: Rohit Khare (Rohit@KnowNow.com)
Date: Wed Dec 27 2000 - 20:00:46 PST
As the Web Turns 10 Years Old, Its Inventor Tries to Keep It Simple
CAMBRIDGE, Mass. -- It's amazing to think today, with the Web now spanning
some 7 million sites, that its creator could barely get his colleagues
interested at first.
Ten years later, Tim Berners-Lee has different worries: keeping the Web
from growing out of control as commercial developers pile layer after layer
of software on top of the Web's foundation.
Born as an unsanctioned project at a European physics lab in December 1990,
the Web succeeded because of its simplicity -- and Mr. Berners-Lee wants to
keep it that way.
"My worry is that we'll make a system that isn't conceptually clean enough
.... so that in 10 years time, we'll find the technology is limiting," he
Hints of this British computer scientist's humble and shy nature comes
through as he describes the Web's origins, evolution and future in his
cluttered office at the World Wide Web Consortium, an organization he
formed in 1994 to develop Web standards.
Unlike scores of other software innovators, Mr. Berners-Lee didn't seek to
get rich off the Web. For the first three years, he wasn't even sure it
would take off.
"At any point, we were waiting for something to happen -- a competing
commercial product to knock it out of existence or a competing Internet
service to knock it out of existence," he recalled.
An information retrieval system called Gopher emerged as a competitor, but
many users abandoned it in 1993 when the University of Minnesota tried to
charge for the software. Later that year, when a team at the University of
Illinois' National Center for Supercomputing Applications released Mosaic,
the first browser to combine graphics and text on a single page, Mr.
Berners-Lee knew his invention would survive.
That NCSA team would soon leave to form Netscape Communications Corp. and
develop the first commercial Web browser, piquing the interest of Microsoft
Corp. and other developers who would tap the Web's commercial potential.
Mr. Berners-Lee first proposed the Web in 1989 while developing ways to
control computers remotely at CERN, the Geneva-based European Organization
for Nuclear Research.
Essentially, the Web combines two concepts that date to the 1960s: the
Internet and hypertext, which is a way of presenting information
nonsequentially. Though the two concepts were well known among engineers,
Mr. Berners-Lee saw the value of marrying them.
He never got the project formally approved, but his boss suggested he
quietly tinker with it anyway.
Using a NeXTStep computer, Mr. Berners-Lee began writing the software in
October 1990, got his browser working by mid-November and added editing
features in December. He made the program available at CERN by Christmas
At the time, he and colleague Robert Cailliau were the Web's only users.
Mr. Berners-Lee wanted to show off his browser, but with only one Web site
initially, there wasn't much to browse.
"The whole development of the browser was very exciting," he said. "The
difficulty was in knowing what to do next."
To encourage use, he worked on getting colleagues at CERN to put up a phone
book and other resources on the Web. He found interns and research fellows
through backdoor channels to work on adapting the browser to other computer
He balanced advocacy with keeping things quiet so that upper management
wouldn't question the time he spent developing something he hadn't been
hired to do.
The first public browser, released in 1991, didn't have the friendly
graphical interfaces of today. Rather than click links, users typed in
Its early advocates, though, went on to improve it. Ultimately, Marc
Andreessen and the Mosaic team added graphics, made the software simple to
install and essentially opened the Web to the world.
"What amazed me during the early days was the enormous amount of free
energy that went into developing that technology," said Michael Folk, who
ran the Mosaic team after Mr. Andreessen left. "People from all over the
world contributed huge amounts of time and ideas in a surprisingly
noncompetitive, collaborative way."
But the Web's commercial phase soon began, and Mr. Folk notes that these
days, many developers apply for patents first and share later, often for a
The later years also brought advertising and e-commerce.
The beauty of the Web, to Mr. Berners-Lee, is its vast potential for
spreading knowledge. But that doesn't mean, he insists, that he is troubled
by all the commercialism.
"The Web was not designed to be restricted to any one domain at all," he
Noncommercial sites still exist beside the commercial ones: "Hello! If
you're not reading them, it's because you're not reading them. It's not
because they've been pushed out."
But Mr. Berners-Lee is somewhat troubled by features that track where users
come from and collect other personal details. His consortium is developing
standards to help software limit the capabilities of business-oriented
He also questions search engines and computer desktop links that favor
marketing partners and provide commercially biased results.
Vinton Cerf, who invented the Internet communications protocols that made
the Web possible, says Mr. Berners-Lee's "notion of using the Web for
world's knowledge is still alive." Mr. Cerf notes that many users have
personal Web pages and can access a lot of information for free.
What worries Mr. Berners-Lee more is the potential for fragmentation -- if
companies innovate without first agreeing on standards.
Java and other Web-based programming expands the Web's usefulness, but it
could make sites useless to older computers when scripting languages
Nowadays, some Web sites exploit certain fancy features in the latest
Microsoft or Netscape browsers. But that makes the Web less universal.
Mr. Berners-Lee's Web consortium is trying to develop standards for the
Web's next phase. They include extensible markup language, or XML, which
tags Web information with hidden codes so businesses can exchange data
without having to reformat them.
The Web's foundation would remain the same. Software at Web sites and
users' computers only need to understand the Web address, the markup
language and the Net transmission scheme.
Mr. Berners-Lee has no regrets about turning down commercial opportunities.
In fact, he says, the Web wouldn't have grown in popularity without a
someone pushing for openness and consistency.
"No other businesses would have been prepared to bet their entire company
on the Web, as a huge number of businesses do," Mr. Berners-Lee said. "All
the volunteers, all the nonprofit groups would not have done it. Having a
neutral was essential."
Michael Dertouzos, director of the Laboratory of Computer Science at
Massachusetts Institute of Technology, says the Web might not have grown at
all had someone other than Berners-Lee invented it.
"While everybody wanted to make the Web theirs," Mr. Dertouzos said, "he
wanted to make the Web belong to everybody."
Mr. Berners-Lee says that upon reflection, there was little he would have
done differently -- except perhaps to craft differently the Web addresses
known as uniform resource locators, or URLs.
"I wouldn't have put the double slashes in," he said. "I didn't realize how
much people would be writing these URLs out and reading them out and how
much time it takes for people to say 'slash slash.' "
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