Feature

Meet the man who invented the Web - Tim Berners Lee

In an exclusive interview, creator of the World-Wide Web Tim Berners-Lee tells Roisin Woolnough where it is all going.

His parents met while working on the Ferranti Mark 1, the first computer to be sold commercially. His mother became known as the "first commercial computer programmer" after accompanying the Ferranti to its installation site. But this all pales in comparison to the legacy left by the man in question - Tim Berners-Lee, the founder of the World-Wide Web.

With parents who were so actively involved in computing, it is no real surprise that Berners-Lee, now 45, also went into this field. "Around the house, it was very clear that maths was exciting and fun," he says. "The curious properties of things were a source of delight and definitely not boring."

Berners-Lee built his first computer while studying physics at Oxford University, using a soldering iron, TTL (transistor-transistor gates), a M6800 processor and an old television. After university, he spent several years working in the IT industry, but it wasn't until 1980, when he embarked upon a six-month stint as a software consultant at Cern, the European Particle Physics Laboratory in Switzerland, that he began the work that was to eventually lead to the Web.

It all started with a Web-like program called Enquire - Enquire Within Upon Everything - which stored information by using random associations. Berners-Lee would type in information and each page was a node in the program. To make a new node, he would have to make a link from the old node. One of the advantages of Enquire was that it stored information without using structures like matrices or trees.

Berners-Lee wrote Enquire simply for the purpose of logging and remembering all the people, computers and projects at Cern. Unfortunately, when his six months was up he left the entire Enquire source code, which was written in Pascal, with a systems manager at Cern and it was lost.

However, the whole process of inventing the program and seeing the results started Berners-Lee thinking about whether all computers could be linked up and information shared. Once this thought had lodged in his mind, there was no shifting it and he became increasingly frustrated by what he saw as the unnecessary incompatibility of computers.

Berners-Lee's vision was to decentralise computers - or generalise them, as he calls it. When the Internet was formed in the 1970s, it was used by a very small community and for specific purposes. It took the arrival of the Web, made available to the general public in 1991, for the Net to become a universal phenomenon.

A lot of people cannot conceive of the Internet and the Web as two different entities. The Net is basically a network of networks, a series of cables between computers that enable various applications, such as e-mail, to run. The Web, however, is more abstract - a source of information, with the connections being hypertext links.

"Before the Web there was the Internet and there were computers all over the place," explains Berners-Lee. "But they were all incompatible and you needed different hardware to get at them, and sometimes different software. There were huge barriers to getting at information. In fact, you had to be a technological whizz on the Internet and at using a particular computer and system. For example, if you went to a library to use a machine, you had to learn the particular program that that library used."

The Internet and hypertext really took off around the time when Berners-Lee's time at Cern was up, and it was his mission to join the two together to form this worldwide connection. But it wasn't until he was back at Cern in 1984 that he got the chance.

Berners-Lee's mind was focused on scaling up the idea of Enquire into a global system. To do this, he wanted to combine Enquire's external links with hypertext and interconnective elements of a remote procedure call program he had devised to enable communication between all the Cern computers and networks.

Then, in 1990, he got his hands on Steve Jobs' new PC, the NeXT, and finally, he could start putting his hypertext ideas into action. One of his first priorities was to give the project a name. Mine of Information was one idea, but the acronym MOI is, of course, French for "me", and therefore looked far too egocentric for Berners-Lee's liking. Similarly. another possibility, The Information Mine, which had the acronym TIM, was even more distasteful to him. He then hit upon the World-Wide Web, a name which expressed his global, decentralised vision.

Berners-Lee's main problem was not creating the Web, devising all the links and mark-up languages, it was persuading Cern and the world at large of the Web's potential. "People were very sceptical and it felt like there were so many mountains to move," says Berners-Lee. Once it was discovered by the general public in 1993 though, it grew exponentially.

Had Berners-Lee not been the one to invent the Web, he thinks it would still have happened, but that it would have been a very different phenomenon. "Someone would have got at the Web via a different route, but it would have been taken up by a publisher and it would have been a proprietary system. You would only be published by going to a mammoth organisation and asking for some space and it would have agreed a certain consistency. I don't think it would have taken off so well."

Berners-Lee is still hugely active in directing the Web. In 1994, he joined the Laboratory for Computer Science at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology in the US, and he also became the director of the World-Wide Web Consortium, a forum of organisations which oversee the Web's development. In fact, he is so excited by where the Web is now going, that he is getting his hands dirty again. "It has got me writing code again."

He believes the next big thing will be the semantic Web, when machines can analyse the information online. It is the idea that computer programs will help humans to organise their lives and act as intelligent agents. In creating this semantic Web, new technologies are emerging. The big one, according to Berners-Lee, is Resource Description Framework.

  • Berners-Lee has recently written a book detailing how he created the Web and his vision for its future, called Weaving the Web. The World Wide Web Consortium can be found at w3.org.


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    This was first published in November 2000

     

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