[TimBL on the Web's History, Aug 1996] Why did the Web take off?

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From: Adam Rifkin (adam@KnowNow.com)
Date: Thu Jan 11 2001 - 10:25:46 PST

Last night I was discussing with a friend why we believe the Web really
took off in the last ten years. I believe he was of the opinion that
the Web took off because a few brilliant people got together and made
sure Things Were Done Right. I think I was of the opinion that the Web
took off because it wasn't rocket science -- that anyone could learn to
use it, write for it, script it.

I guess the discussion came down to the issue of whether the
"carpetbaggers" who latched onto the Web once it was out there
ultimately helped the Web accelerate faster, or whether the Web
succeeded despite them.

It's interesting to go back five years and read TimBL's perspective on
where the Web had been and where he believed it was going. Five years
later, it seems that exactly the same challenges remain: finding the
pleasure button for XML, adding notifications to the Web, making more
Web services machine-readable, making the Web a more interactive and
collaborative medium, enhancing the user interface and moving to a world
beyond FORMs, and man oh man is there lots to do in thinking through

The next revolution, the 2WW, will not be televised. But it will be
coming to a Web near you. :)

Now that I think about it, revolution is too strong a word. The Web has
demonstrated that it has adopted the *minimum* it has needed to add new
capabilities; this is why a lot of the things TimBL talked about five
years ago still haven't played out. The Web as a whole only sees new
things spread widely when those new things are actually needed *and*
they have the pleasure button that gives people some new functionality
with which they can immediately play.

  -- Adam


The World Wide Web: Past, Present and Future
Tim Berners-Lee
August 1996

The author is the Director of the World Wide Web Consortium and a
principal research scientist at the Laboratory for Computer Science,
Massachusetts Institute of Technology, 545 Technology Square, Cambridge
MA 02139 U.S.A. http://www.w3.org

Draft response to invitation to publish in IEEE Computer special issue
of October 1996.


The World Wide Web was designed originally as an interactive world of
shared information through which people could communicate with each
other and with machines. Since its inception in 1989 it has grown
initially as a medium for the broadcast of read-only material from
heavily loaded corporate servers to the mass of Internet connected
consumers. Recent commercial interest its use within the organization
under the "Intranet" buzzword takes it into the domain of smaller,
closed, groups, in which greater trust allows more interaction. In the
future we look toward the web becoming a tool for even smaller groups,
families, and personal information systems. Other interesting
developments would be the increasingly interactive nature of the
interface to the user, and the increasing use of machine-readable
information with defined semantics allowing more advanced machine
processing of global information, including machine-readable signed
assertions. Introduction This paper represents the personal views of
the author, not those of the World Wide Web Consortium members, nor of
host institutes.

This paper gives an overview of the history, the current state, and
possible future directions for the World Wide Web. The Web is simply
defined as the universe of global network-accessible information. It is
an abstract space with which people can interact, and is currently
chiefly populated by interlinked pages of text, images and animations,
with occasional sounds, three dimensional worlds, and videos. Its
existence marks the end of an era of frustrating and debilitating
incompatibilities between computer systems. The explosion of
advisability and the potential social and economical impact has not
passed unnoticed by a much larger community than has previously used
computers. The commercial potential in the system has driven a rapid
pace of development of new features, making the maintenance of the
global interoperability which the Web brought a continuous task for all
concerned. At the same time, it highlights a number of research areas
whose solutions will become more and more pressing, which we will only
be able to mention in passing in this paper. Let us start, though, as
promised, with a mention of the original goals of the project, conceived
as it was as an answer to the author's personal need, and the perceived
needs of the organization and larger communities of scientists and
engineers, and the world in general.


Before the web

The origins of the ideas on hypertext can be traced back to historic
work such as Vanevar Bush's famous article "As We May Think" in Atlantic
monthly in 1945 in which he proposed the "Memex" machine which would by
a process of binary coding, photocells and instant photography, allow
microfilms cross-references to be made and automatically followed. It
continues with Doug Englebart's "NLS" system which used digital
computers and provided hypertext email and documentation sharing, with
Ted Nelson's coining of the word "hypertext". For all these visions, the
real world in which the technologically rich field of High Energy
Physics found itself in 1980 was one of incompatible networks, disk
formats, data formats, and character encoding schemes, which made any
attempt to transfer information between dislike systems a daunting and
generally impractical task. This was particularly frustrating given that
to a greater and greater extent computers were being used directly for
most information handling, and so almost anything one might want to know
was almost certainly recorded magnetically somewhere.

Design Criteria

The goal of the Web was to be a shared information space through which
people (and machines) could communicate.

The intent was that this space should span from a private information
system to a public information, from high value carefully checked and
designed material, to off-the-cuff ideas which make sense only to a few
people and may never be read again.

The design of the world-wide web was based on a few criteria.

An information system must be able to record random associations between
any arbitrary objects, unlike most database systems; If two sets of
users started to use the system independently, to make a link from one
system to another should be an incremental effort, not requiring
unscalable operations such as the merging of link databases. Any
attempt to constrain users as a whole to the use of particular languages
or operating systems was always doomed to failure; Information must be
available on all platforms, including future ones; Any attempt to
constrain the mental model users have of data into a given pattern was
always doomed to failure; If information within an organization is to be
accurately represented in the system, entering or correcting it must be
trivial for the person directly knowledgeable. The author's experience
had been with a number of proprietary systems, systems designed by
physicists, and with his own Enquire program (1980) which allowed random
links, and had been personally useful, but had not been usable across a
wide area network.

Finally, a goal of the Web was that, if the interaction between person
and hypertext could be so intuitive that the machine-readable
information space gave an accurate representation of the state of
people's thoughts, interactions, and work patterns, then machine
analysis could become a very powerful management tool, seeing patters in
our work and facilitating our working together through the typical
problems which beset the management of large organizations.

Basic Architectural Principles

The World Wide Web architecture was proposed in 1989 and is illustrated
in the figure. It was designed to meet the criteria above, and according
to well-known principles of software design adapted to the network

Fig: Original WWW architecture diagram from 1990. The pink arrow shows
the common standards: URL, and HTTP, with format negotiation of the data type.

Independence of specifications

Flexibility was clearly a key point. Every specification needed to
ensure interoperability placed constraints on the implementation and use
of the Web. Therefore, as few things should be specified as possible
(minimal constraint) and those specifications which had to be made
should be made independent (modularity and information hiding). The
independence of specifications would allow parts of the design to be
replaced while preserving the basic architecture. A test of this ability
was to replace them with older specifications, and demonstrate the
ability to intermix those with the new. Thus, the old FTP protocol could
be intermixed with the new HTTP protocol in the address space, and
conventional text documents could be intermixed with new hypertext documents.

It is worth pointing out that this principle of minimal constraint was a
major factor in the web's adoption. At any point, people needed to make
minor and incremental changes to adopt the web, first as a parallel
technology to existing systems, and then as the principle one. The
ability to evolve from the past to the present within the general
principles of architecture gives some hope that evolution into the
future will be equally smooth and incremental.

Universal Resource Identifiers

Hypertext as a concept had been around for a long time. Typically,
though, hypertext systems were built around a database of links. This
did not scale in the sense of the requirements above. However, it did
guarantee that links would be consistent, and links to documents would
be removed when documents were removed. The removal of this feature was
the principle compromise made in the W3 architecture, which then, by
allowing references to be made without consultation with the
destination, allowed the scalability which the later growth of the web

The power of a link in the Web is that it can point to any document (or,
more generally, resource) of any kind in the universe of
information. This requires a global space of identifiers. These
Universal Resource Identifiers are the primary element of Web
architecture. The now well-known structure starts with a prefix such as
"http:" to indicate into which space the rest of the string points. The
URI space is universal in that any new space of any kind which has some
kind of identifying, naming or addressing syntax can be mapped into a
printable syntax and given a prefix, and can then become part of URI
space. The properties of any given URI depend on the properties of the
space into which it points. Depending on these properties, some spaces
tend to be known as "name" spaces, and some as "address" spaces, but the
actual properties of a space depend not only on its definition, syntax
and support protocols, but also on the social structure supporting it
and defining the allocation and reallocation of identifiers. The web
architecture, fortunately, does not depend on the decision as to whether
a URI is a name or and address, although the phrase URL (locator) was
coined in IETF circles to indicate that most URIs actually in use were
considered more like addresses than names. We await the definition of
more powerful name spaces, but note that this is not a trivial problem.

Opaqueness of identifiers

An important principle is that URIs are generally treated as opaque
strings: client software is not allowed to look inside them and to draw
conclusions about the object referenced.

Generic URIs

Another interesting feature of URIs is that they can identify objects
(such as documents) generically: One URI can be given, for example, for
a book, which is available in several languages and several data
formats. Another URI could be given for the same book in a specific
language, and another URI could be given for a bit stream representing a
specific edition of the book in a given language and data format. Thus
the concept of "identity" of an Web object allows for genericity, which
is unusual in object-oriented systems.


As protocols went for accessing remote data, a standard did exist in the
File Transfer Protocol (FTP). However, this was not optimal for the web,
in that it was too slow and not sufficiently rich in features, so a new
protocol designed to operate with the speed necessary for traversing
hypertext links, HyperText Transfer Protocol, was designed. The HTTP
URIs are resolved into the addressed document by splitting them into two
halves. The first half is applied to the Domain Name Service [ref] to
discover a suitable server, and the second half is an opaque string
which is handed to that server.

A feature of HTTP is that it allows a client to specify preferences in
terms of language and data format. This allows a server to select a
suitable specific object when the URI requested was generic. This
feature is implemented in various HTTP servers but tends to be
underutilized by clients, partly because of the time overhead in
transmitting the preferences, and partly because historically generic
URIs have been the exception. This feature, known as format negotiation,
is one key element of independence between the HTTP specification and
the HTML specification.


For the interchange of hypertext, the Hypertext Markup Language was
defined as a data format to be transmitted over the write. Given the
presumed difficulty of encouraging the world to use a new global
information system, HTML was chosen to resemble some SGML-based systems
in order to encourage its adoption by the documentation community, among
whom SGML was a preferred syntax, and the hypertext community, among
whom SGML was the only syntax considered as a possible standard. Though
adoption of SGML did allow these communities to accept the Web more
easily, SGML turned out to have very complex and not very well defined
syntax, and the attempt to find a compromise between full SGML
compatibility and ease of use of HTML bedeviled the experts for a long time.

Early History

The road from conception to adoption of an idea is often tortuous, and
for the Web it certainly had its curves. It was clearly impossible to
convince anyone to use the system as it was, having a small audience and
content only about itself. Some of the steps were as follows.

The initial prototype was written in NeXTStep (October-December
1990). This allowed the simple addition of new links and new documents,
as a "wysiwyg" editor which browsed at the same time. However, the
limited deployment of NeXStep limited its visibility. The initial Web
describing the Web was written using this tool, with links to sound and
graphic files, and was published by a simple HTTP server.

To ensure global acceptance, a "line mode" browser was written by Nicola
Pellow, a very portable hypertext browser which allows web information
to be retrieved on any platform. This was all many people at the time
saw of the Web. (1991)

In order to seed the Web with data, a second server was written which
provided a gateway into a "legacy" phonebook database on a mainframe at
CERN. This was the first "useful" Web application, and so many people at
that point saw the web as a phone book program with a strange user
interface. However, it got the line mode browser onto a few desks. This
gateway server was followed by a number of others, making a web client a
useful tool within the Physics community at least.

No further resources being available at CERN, the Internet community at
large was encouraged to port the WorldWideWeb program to other
platforms. "Erwise", "Midas", "Viola-WWW" for X windows and "Cello" for
Windows(tm) were various resulting clients which unfortunately were only
browsers, though Viola-WWW, by Pei Wei, was interestingly based on an
interpreted mobile code language (Viola) and comparable in some respects
to the later Hot Java(TM)

The Internet Gopher was seen for a long time as a preferable information
system, avoiding the complexities of HTML, but rumors of the technology
being licensable provoked a general re-evaluation.

In 1993, Marc Andreessen of the National Center for Supercomputing
Applications, having seen ViolaWWW, wrote "Mosaic", a WWW client for
X. Mosaic was easy to install, and later allowed inline images, and
became very popular.

In 1994, Navisoft Inc created a browser/editor more reminiscent of the
original WorldWideWeb program, being able to browse and edit in the same
mode. [This is currently known as "AOLPress"].

An early metric of web growth was the load on the first web server
info.cern.ch (originally running on the same machine as the first
client, now replaced by www.w3.org). Curiously, this grew as a steady
exponential as the graph (on a log scale) shows, at a factor of ten per
year, over three years. Thus the growth was clearly an explosion, though
one could not put a finger on any particular date as being more
significant than others.

Figure. Web client growth from July 1991 to July 1994. Missing points
are lost data. Even the ratio between weekend and weekday growth
remained remarkably steady.

That server included suggestions on finding and running clients and
servers. It included a page on Etiquette, which included such
conventions as the email address "webmaster" as a point of contact for
queries about a server, the fact that the URL consisting only of the
name of the server should be a default entry point, no matter what the
topology of a server's internal links.

This takes development to the point where the general public became
aware of it, and the rest is well documented. HTML, which was intended
to be the warp and weft of a hypertext tapestry crammed with rich and
varied data types, became surprisingly ubiquitous. Rather than relying
on the extent of computer availability and Internet connectivity, the
Web started to drive it. The URL syntax of the "http:" type became as
self-describing to the public as 800 numbers.

Current situation

Now we summarize the current state of web deployment, and some of the
recent developments.

Incompatibilities and tensions

The common standards of URIs, HTTP and HTML have allowed growth of the
web, and have also allowed the development resources of companies and
universities across the world to be applied to the exploitation and
extension of the web. This has resulted in a mass of new data types and

In the case of new data formats, the ability of HTTP to handle arbitrary
data formats has allowed easy expansion, so the introduction, for
example, of three dimension scene description language "VRML", or the
Java(tm) byte code format for the transfer of mobile program code, has
been easy. What has been less easy has been for servers to know what
clients have supported, as the format negotiation system has not been
widely deployed in clients. This has lead, for example, to the
deplorable engineering practice, in the server, of checking the browser
make and version against a table kept by the server. This makes it
difficult to introduce new clients, and is of course very difficult to
maintain. It has lead to the "spoofing" of well-known clients by new
less well known ones on order to extract sufficiently rich data from
servers. This has been accompanied by an insufficiency in the MIME types
used to describe data: text/html is used to refer to many levels of
HTML; image/png is used to refer to any PNG format graphic, when it is
interesting to know how many colors it encodes; Java(tm) files are
shipped around without any visible indication of the runtime support
they will require to execute.

Forces toward compatibility and progress

Throughout the industry, from 1992 on, there was a strong worry that a
fragmentation of the Web standards would eventually destroy the universe
of information upon which so many developments, technical and
commercial, were being built. This lead to the formation in 1994 of the
World Wide Web Consortium. At the time of writing, the Consortium has
around 150 members including all the major developers of Web technology,
and many others whose businesses are increasingly based on the ubiquity
and functionality of the Web. Based at the Massachusetts Institute of
Technology in the USA and at the Institute Nationale pour la Récherche
en Informatique et Automatique in Europe, the Consortium provides a
vendor-neutral forum where competing companies can meet to agree on
common specifications for the common good. The Consortium's mission,
taken broadly, is to realize the full potential of the Web, and the
directions in which this is interpreted are described later on.

From Protecting Minors to Ensuring Quality: PICS

Of the developments to web protocols are driven sometimes by technical
needs of the infrastructure, such as those of efficient caching,
sometimes by particular applications, and sometimes by the connection
between the Web and the society which can be built around it. Sometimes
these become interleaved. An example of the latter was the need to
address worries of parents, schools, and governments that young children
would gain access to material which though indecency, violence or other
reason, was judged harmful to them. Under threat of government
restrictions of internet use, or worse, government censorship, the
community reacted rapidly in the form of W3C's Platform for Internet
Content Selection (PICS) initiative. PICS introduces new protocol
elements and data formats to the web architecture, and is interesting in
that the principles involved may apply to future developments.

Essentially, PICS allows parents to set up filters for their children's
information intake, where the filters can refer to the parent's choice
of independent rating services. Philosophically, this allows parents
(rather than centralized government) to define what is too "indecent"
for their children. It is, like the Internet and the Web, a
decentralized solution.

Technically, PICS involves a specification for a machine readable
"label". Unlike HTML, PICS labels are designed to be read by machine, by
the filter software. They are sets of attribute-value pairs, and are
self-describing in that any label carries a URL which, when
dereferenced, provides both machine-readable and human-readable
explanations of the semantics of the attributes and their possible

Figure: The RSAC-i rating scheme. An example of a PICS scheme.

PICS labels may be obtained in a number of ways. They may be transported
on CD-ROM, or they may be sent by a server along with labeled
data. (PICS labels may be digitally signed, so that their authenticity
can be verified independently of their method of delivery). They may
also be obtained in real time from a third party. This required a
specification for a protocol for a party A to ask a party B for any
labels which refer to information originated by party C.

Clearly, this technology, which is expected soon to be well deployed
under pressure about communications decency, is easily applied to many
other uses. The label querying protocol is the same as an annotation
retrieval protocol. Once deployed, it will allow label servers to
present annotations as well as normal PICS labels. PICS labels may of
course be used for many different things. Material will be able to be
rated for quality for adult or scholarly use, forming "Seals of
Approval" and allowing individuals to select their reading, buying, etc, wisely.

Security and Ecommerce

If the world works by the exchange of information and money, the web
allows the exchange of information, and so the interchange of money is a
natural next step. In fact, exchanging cash in the sense of unforgeable
tokens is impossible digitally, but many schemes which cryptographically
or otherwise provide assurances of promises to pay allow check book,
credit card, and a host of new forms of payment scheme to be
implemented. This article does not have space for a discussion of these
schemes, nor of the various ways proposed to implement security on the
web. The ability of cryptography to ensure confidentiality,
authentication, non-repudiation, and message integrity is not new. The
current situation is that a number of proposals exist for specific
protocols for security, and for payment a fairly large and growing
number of protocols and research ideas are around. One protocol,
Netscape's "Secure Socket Layer", which gives confidentiality of a
session, is well deployed. For the sake of progress, the W3 Consortium
is working on protocols to negotiate the security and payment protocols
which will be used.

Machine interaction with the web

To date, the principle machine analysis of material on the web has been
its textual indexing by search engines. Search engines have proven
remarkably useful, in that large indexes can be searched very rapidly,
and obscure documents found. They have proved to be remarkably useless,
in that their searches generally take only vocabulary of documents into
account, and have little or no concept of document quality, and so
produce a lot of junk. Below we discuss how adding documents with
defined semantics to the web should enable much more powerful tools.

Some promising new ideas involve analysis not only of the web, but of
people's interaction with it, to automatically reap more idea of quality
and relevance. Some of these programs, sophisticated search tools, have
been described as "agents" (because they act on behalf of the user),
though the term is normally used for programs that are actually mobile.
There is currently little generally deployed use of mobile agents.
Mobile code is used to create interesting human interfaces for data
(such as Java "applets"), and to bootstrap the user into a new
distributed applications. Potentially, mobile code has a much greater
impact on the software architecture of software on client and server
machines. However, without a web of trust to allow mobile programs (or
indeed fixed web-searching programs) to act on a use's behalf, progress
will be very limited.

Future directions

Having summarized the origins of the Web, and its current state, we now
look at some possible directions in which developments could take it in
the coming years. One can separate these into three long term goals. The
first involves the improvement of the infrastructure, to provide a more
functional, robust, efficient and available service. The second is to
enhance the web as a means of communication and interaction between
people. The third is to allow the web, apart form being a space
browseable by humans, to contain rich data in a form understandable by
machines, thus allowing machines to take a stronger part in analyzing
the web, and solving problems for us.


When the web was designed, the fact that anyone could start a server,
and it could run happily on the Internet without regard to registration
with any central authority or with the number of other HTTP servers
which others might be running was seen as a key property, which enabled
it to "scale". Today, such scaling is not enough. The numbers of clients
is so great that the need is for a server to be able to operate more or
less independently of the number of clients. The are cases when the
readership of documents is so great that the load on severs becomes
quite unacceptable.

Further, for the web to be a useful mirror of real life, it must be
possible for the emphasis on various documents to change rapidly and
dramatically. If a popular newscast refers by chance to the work of a
particular schoolchild on the web, the school cannot be expected to have
the resources to serve copies of it to all the suddenly interested

Another cause for evolution is the fact that business is now relying on
the Web to the extend that outages of servers or network are not
considered acceptable. An architecture is required allowing fault
tolerance. Both these needs are addressed by the automatic, and
sometimes preemptive, replication of data. At the same time, one would
not wish to see an exacerbation of the situation suffered by Usenet News
administrators who have to manually configure the disk and caching times
for different classes of data. One would prefer an adaptive system which
would configure itself so as to best use the resources available to the
various communities to optimize the quality of service perceived.

This is not a simple problem. It includes the problems of categorizing
documents and users so as to be able to treat them in groups;
anticipating high usage of groups of documents by groups of users;
deciding on optimal placement of copies of data for rapid access; an
algorithm for finding the cheapest or nearest copy, given a URL;
Resolution of these problems must occur within a context in which
different areas of the infrastructure are funded through different
bodies with different priorities and policies.

These are some of the long term concerns about the infrastructure, the
basic architecture of the web. In the shorter term, protocol designers
are increasing the efficiency of HTTP communication, particularly for
the case of a user whose performance limiting item is a telephone modem.

Human Communication

In the short term, work at W3C and elsewhere on improving the web as a
communications medium has mainly centered around the data formats for
various displayable document types: continued extensions to HTML, the
new Portable Network Graphics (PNG) specification, the Virtual Reality
Markup Language (VRML), etc. Presumably this will continue, and though
HTML will be considered part of the established infrastructure (rather
than an exciting new toy), there will always be new formats coming
along, and it may be that a more powerful and perhaps a more consistent
set of formats will eventually displace HTML. In the longer term, there
are other changes to the Web which will be necessary for its potential
for human communication to be realized.

We have seen that the Web initially was designed to be a space within
which people could work on an expression of their shared knowledge. This
was seen as being a powerful tool, in that when people combine to build
a hypertext of their shared understanding, they have it at all times to
refer to, to allay misunderstandings of one-time messages. when new
people join a team, they have all the legacy of decisions and hopefully
reasons available for their inspection; when people leave a team, their
work is captured and integrated already, a "debriefing" not being
necessary; with all the workings of a project on the web, machine
analysis of the organization becomes very enticing, perhaps allowing us
to draw conclusions about management and reorganization which an
individual person would find hard to elucidate;

The intention was that the Web should be used as a personal information
system, as a group tool at all scales from the team of two, to the world
population deciding on ecological issues. An essential power of the
system, as mentioned above, was the ability to move and link information
between these layers, bringing the links between them into clear focus,
and helping maintain consistency when the layers are blurred.

At the time of writing, the most famous aspect of the web is the
corporate site which addresses the general consumer population.
Increasingly, the power of the web within an organization is being
appreciated, under the buzzword of the "Intranet". It is of course by
definition difficult to estimate the amount of material on private parts
of the web. However, when there were only a few hundred public servers
in existence, one large computer company had over a hundred internal
servers. Although to set up a private server needs some attention to
access control, once it is done its use is accelerated by the fact that
the participants share a level of trust, by being already part of a
company of group. This encourages information sharing at a more
spontaneous and direct level than the publication rituals of passage
appropriate for public material.

A recent workshop shed light on a number of areas in which the Web
protocols could be improved to aid collaborative use:

Better editors to allow direct interaction with web data;
Notificaton of those interested when information has changed;
Integration of audio and video internet conferencing technologies
Hypertext links which represent in a visible and analyzable way the
semantics of human processes such as argument, peer review, and workflow
Third party annotation servers;
Verifiable authentication, allowing group membership to be established
for access control;
The representation of links as first class objects with version control,
authorship and ownership;
among others.

At the microcosmic end of the scale, the web should be naturally usable
as a personal information system. Indeed, it will not be natural to use
the Web until global data and personal data are handled in a consistent
way. From the human interface point of view, this means that the basic
computer interface which typically uses a "desktop" metaphor must be
integrated with hypertext. It is not as though there are many big
differences: file systems have links ("aliases", "shortcuts") just like
web documents. Useful information management objects such as folders and
nested lists will need to be transferable in standard ways to exist on
the web. The author also feels that the importance of the filename in
computer systems will decrease until the ubiquitous filename dialog box
disappears. What is important about information can best be stated in
its title and the links which exist in various forms, such as enclosure
of a file within a folder, appearance of an email address in a "To:"
field of a message, the relationship of a document to its author,
etc. These semantically rich assertions make sense to a person. If the
user specifies essential information such as the availability and
reliability levels required of access to a document, and the domain of
visibility of a document, then that leaves the system to manage the
niceties of disk space in such a way as to give the required quality of

The end result, one would hope, will be a consistent and intuitive
universe of information, some part of which what one sees whenever one
sees a computer screen, whether it be a pocket screen, a living room
screen, or an auditorium screen.

Machine interaction with the web

As mentioned above, an early but long term goal of the web development
was that, if the web came to accurately reflect the knowledge and
interworkings of teams of people, that machine analysis would become a
tool enabling us to analysis the ways in which we interact, and
facilitating our working together. With the growth of commercial
applications of the web, this extends to the ideal of allowing computers
to facilitate business, acting as agents with power to act financially.

The first significant change required for this to happen is that data on
the web which is potentially useful to such a program must be available
in a machine-readable form with defined semantics. This could be done
along the lines of the Electronic Document Interchange (EDI) [ref], in
which a number of forms such as offers for sale, bills of sale, title
deeds, and invoices are devised as digital equivalents of the paper
documents. In this case, the semantics of each form is defined by a
human readable specification document. Alternatively, general purpose
languages could be defined in which assertions could be made, within
which axiomatic concepts could be defined from time to time in human
readable documents. In this case, the power of the language to combine
concepts originating from different areas could lead to a very much more
powerful system on which one could base machine reasoning systems.
Knowledge Representation (KR) languages are something which, while
interesting academically, have not had a wide impact on applications of
computer. But then, the same was true of hypertext before the Web gave
it global scope.

There is a bi-directional connection between developments in machine
processing of global data and in cryptographic security. For machine
reasoning over a global domain to be effective, machines must be able to
verify the authenticity of assertions found on the web: this requires a
global security infrastructure allowing signed documents. Similarly, a
global security infrastructure seems to need the ability to include, in
the information about cryptographic keys and trust, the manipulation of
fairly complex assertions. It is perhaps the chicken-and-egg
interdependence which has, along with government restrictions on the use
of cryptography, delayed the deployment of either kind of system to date.

The PICS system may be a first step in this direction, as its labels are
machine readable.

Ethical and social concerns

At the first International World Wide Web Conference in Geneva in May
1994, the author made a closing comment that, rather than being a purely
academic or technical field, the engineers would find that many ethical
and social issues were being addressed by the kinds of protocol they
designed, and so that they should not consider those issues to be
somebody else's problem. In the short time since then, such issues have
appeared with increasing frequency. The PICS initiative showed that the
form of network protocols can affect the form of a society which one
builds within the information space.

Now we have concerns over privacy. Is the right to a really private
conversation one which we enjoy only in the middle of a large open
space, or should we give it to individuals connected across the network?
Concepts of intellectual property, central to our culture, are not
expressed in a way which maps onto the abstract information space. In an
information space, we can consider the authorship of materials, and
their perception; but we have seen above how there is a need for the
underlying infrastructure to be able to make copies of data simply for
reasons of efficiency and reliability. The concept of "copyright" as
expressed in terms of copies made makes little sense. Furthermore, once
those copies have been made, automatically by the system, this gives the
possibility them being seized, and a conversation considered private
being later exposed. Indeed, it is difficult to list all the ways in
which privacy can be compromised, as operations which were previously
manual can be done in bulk extremely easily. How can content providers
get feedback out the demographic make-up of those browsing their
material, without compromising individual privacy? Though boring in
small quantities, the questions individuals ask of search engines, in
bulk, could be compromising information.

In the long term, there are questions as to what will happen to our
cultures when geography becomes weakened as a diversifying force? Will
the net lead to a monolithic (American) culture, or will it foster even
more disparate interest groups than exist today? Will it enable a true
democracy by informing the voting public of the realities behind state
decisions, or in practice will it harbor ghettos of bigotry where
emotional intensity rather than truth gains the readership? It is for
us to decide, but it is not trivial to assess the impact of simple
engineering decisions on the answers to such questions.


The Web, like the Internet, is designed so as to create the desired "end
to end" effect, whilst hiding to as large an extent as possible the
intermediate machinery which makes it work. If the law of the land can
respect this, and be couched in an "end to end" terms, such that no
government or other interference in the mechanisms is legal that would
break the end to end rules, then it can continue in that way. If not,
engineers will have to learn the art of designing systems so that the
end to end functionality is guaranteed whatever happens in between.
What TCP did for reliable delivery (providing it end-to-end when the
underlying network itself did not provide it) , cryptography is doing
for confidentiality. Further protocols may do this for information
ownership, payment, and other facets of interaction which are currently
bound by geography. For the information space to be a powerful place in
which to solve the problems of the next generations, its integrity,
including its independence of hardware, packet route, operating system,
and application software brand, is essential. Its properties must be
consistent, reliable, and fair, and the laws of our countries will have
to work hand in hand with the specifications of network protocols to
make that so.


Space is insufficient for a bibliography for a field involving so much
work by so many. The World Wide Web has a dedicated series of
conferences run by an independent committee. For papers on advances and
proposals on Web related topics, the reader is directed to past and
future conferences. The proceedings of the last two conferences to date
are as below.

Proceedings of the Fourth International World Wide Web Conference
(Boston 1995), The World Wide Web Journal, Vol. 1, Iss. 1, O'Reilly,
Nov. 1995. ISSN 1085-2301, ISBN: 1-56592-169-0. [[Later issues may also
be of interest.]

Proceedings of the Fifth Internatonal World Wide Web Conference,
Computer Networks and ISDN systems, Vol 28 Nos 7-11, Elsevier, May 1996.

Also refered to in the text:

[1] Bush, Vannevar, "As We May Think", Atlantic Monthly, July 1945.
(Reprinted also in the following:)

[2] Nelson, Theodore, Literary Machines 90.1, Mindful Press, 1990.

[3] Englebart, Douglas, Boosting Our Collective IQ - Selected Readings,
Boostrap Institute/BLT Press, 1995, <AUGMENT,133150,>,

[5] On Gopher, See F. Anklesaria, M. McCahill, P. Lindner, D. Johnson,
D. John, D. Torrey, B. Alberti, "The Internet Gopher Protocol (a
distributed document search and retrieval protocol)", RFC 1436
03/18/1993. , http://ds.internic.net/rfc/rfc1436.txt

[6] On EDI, See http://polaris.disa.org/edi/edihome.htp


Too clever is dumb. -- Ogden Nash

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