The web - past, present and future

Internet luminaries gathered in Boston on Wednesday to celebrate the 10th anniversary of the World Wide Web Consortium (W3C),...

Internet luminaries gathered in Boston on Wednesday to celebrate the 10th anniversary of the World Wide Web Consortium (W3C), honour its founder, director and the web's inventor Tim Berners-Lee.

Speakers at the gathering recounted, in sometimes excruciating detail, the events leading to the creation of the web and the W3C, which has promoted a long line of key web standards, including HTML and XML.

Experts, including representatives of leading technology firms, also looked forward to future developments backed by the W3C, including the Semantic Web, which will allow users to access and connect more types and sources of data online.

Early backers of the web were on hand to recount the early days of the internet, which Berners-Lee invented in 1989 while working at Cern, the European Particle Physics Laboratory, as a way to manage and connect research information stored on different machines.

In presentations, some funny, some flat, speakers described the early days, when Berners-Lee and others jetted between France, the UK and the US in a dizzying series of conferences and meetings to evangelise the web and drum up support for a group to steward its development.

Among the early challenges faced by web supporters was getting Cern, in 1993, to relinquish intellectual property claims to HTML and other technology invented at the lab that was integral to spreading the web in the world at large, according to Berners-Lee.

Other speakers recounted early squabbles, as the web grew and the W3C's rising membership sought ways to contribute to the standards development process.

Håkon Wium Lie, inventor of the Cascading Style Sheets (CSS) standard for formatting content on web pages, and now chief technology officer at browser maker Opera, contributed an amusing video recounting the early and humble days of the web, depicting it as an afterthought created in the windowless, cramped subterranean offices of Cern.

Alan Kotok, formerly of Digital Equipment, spoke of Cern's dawning awareness of the potential of the web and his early role as a backer of the W3C.

Other speakers addressed the enormous impact that the web has had, in just over a decade, on the way that individuals live and work. 

"Internet use is now the norm, and that's just an amazing adoption story," said Lee Rainie of the Pew Internet & American Life Project. "The internet and the web have built themselves into the very rhythms of people's lives."

From the time the first popular web browser appeared, the National Center for Supercomputing Applications' (NCSA) Mosaic, it took just four years for 50 million people to begin using the web.

That compares with much longer adoption periods for other revolutionary technologies, such as the telephone, which took 38 years to be adopted by the same number of people, and television, which took 13 years to reach the 50 million user threshold, he said. 

Technological developments based on W3C standards such as HTML and HTTP were an important part of the success of the web, and brought ease of use to computing environments that were distributed, heterogenous and complex, according to Bill Ruh, global practice director at Cisco Systems.

But Berners-Lee was the star of the gathering, and he used the occasion to focus attention on W3C's ongoing work, including the Semantic Web, a World Wide Web extension that greatly expands the information types and relationships between information that can be represented online.

The W3C is the key proponent of the Semantic Web and has published a specification for RDF (Resource Description Framework), a technology that allows structured and semi-structured data of all kinds to be shared across different applications.

The Semantic Web might, for instance, be used to make links between different sources of information and research on heart attacks, linking up related but dissimilar terms such as "heart attack" and the more technical "myocardial infarction" or "MI", said Eric Miller, Semantic Web activity lead at the W3C.

Social networking service Friendster, which is built on RDF, is an early Semantic Web application, allowing individuals to visually represent complex social relationships using media such as text and images, he said.

But in order for the Semantic Web and its cousins, like web services, to take off, they need to be based on what Berners-Lee called a "clean architecture" that is deployed in a standard way across companies and organisations.

"Hopefully we can create a clean, neat architecture that lasts for several decades, instead of needing to be flushed out and refitted in ten years," he said.

But even with standards in place, no one can predict the catalyst or series of catalysts that will produce "disruptive change", Berners-Lee said.

"Look at Google. People did not foresee Google coming because they did not think that [disc storage] would be that cheap, and they did not predict that you could use an algorithm to analyse the web matrix and spot clusters of information," he said.

Many people at the conference reflected on the successes of the past 10 years and the promise of ongoing developments like the Semantic Web.

"It is important to reflect on how far we have traveled, and interesting to see how these basic standards have become so deeply ingrained," said Francis Fuca, programme manager for standards at Thomson Legal & Regulatory.

Thomson has been a W3C member since 1997 and is following the evolution of the Semantic Web closely, as the company looks for ways to bring together disparate collections of data in one place for its customers, Fuca said.

The sure sign of the success of developments like the web and the Semantic Web in the coming decades will be that people stop talking about them, said James Bell, director of the industry standards programme office at Hewlett-Packard.

"They'll be like electricity, where people stopped talking about it and started talking about all the interesting new things that you can plug into the wall," he said.

Paul Roberts writes for IDG News Service

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