Voice will power the future of the web

Tim Berners-Lee, creator of the world wide web, talks about the future of semantic web services, how voice will interface with...

Tim Berners-Lee, creator of the world wide web, talks about the future of semantic web services, how voice will interface with data and how spam is not his fault.

Tim Berners-Lee, director of the World Wide Web Consortium (W3C), believes the next wave of internet development will fundamentally alter the way we share data, and voice will be at the heart of that transformation.

Fragmentation of the web has been one of Berners-Lee's greatest fears. A common patent policy was agreed in May by members of the W3C, which develops the protocols that underpin the web.

W3C members, which include major IT, telecoms and media suppliers, had threatened to patent key web components. "Patents are a huge problem and involve a huge amount of work," Berners-Lee said.

"But now that theW3C is a royalty-free zone, I am sleeping better at night."

Berners-Lee also believes that excessive focus on safeguarding intellectual property rights through patents could stifle technological creativity.

"In the US the bar for novelty is set much too low. Most patents are used defensively by companies like a nuclear stockpile to threaten each other with," he said. This approach, he added, causes problems, particularly for isolated inventors.

Today the web is focused on the document, said Berners-Lee. The semantic web, the next generation of the technology, will be about the well-defined representation of data to enable users to compare and share data on different websites automatically and without human intervention.

"The semantic web will be exciting. It will interconnect things that cannot be done now," he said. Its development is proceeding apace.

"The first phase of development is where there is nothing there, and people ask why we are looking at using silly languages," he said.

"The second phase is where metadata standards start to be deployed. This is where the semantic web is today."

At the heart of the semantic web is the Resource Description Framework, a term for metadata standards that Berners-Lee believes will become as familiar as HTML or XML. RDF integrates a variety of applications using XML for syntax and URLs for naming.

Phase three, which will see the creation of a rules-based system around this core, is going to be the most exciting, said Berners-Lee.

He believes that the integration of the semantic web with web services will revolutionise the way we use data. For example, geospatial applications could automatically add information to features on maps from other domains.

Another area where this will have an impact is biotechnology, where differing data terms in overlapping fields such as chemistry and pharmaceuticals could be uniformly recognised.

Berners-Lee also predicted that voice will be used to interface with the web - a trend being driven by a proliferation of different devices. "It used to be very convenient when we all used computers," he said. "But now we do not share a common state so people will use voice a lot more.

"Voice will be a big challenge for web development. Voice technology has been promised for so long. It is now more usable, but still difficult. Speech synthesis is tolerable, so we are putting things out that can start describing a dialogue. For example, describing in a semantic web way what you have just ordered from the pizza delivery site."

Not everything in the development of the semantic web is progressing as smoothly as Berners-Lee hoped. "Collaborative technology is not moving as fast as we would like," he said. "Among the reasons for the slow pace is the need for web access control and the need to roll back changes. It needs a lot of support technology that IT people will know how to do."

In addition, the constructive tension between standards and the urge to innovate in a non-standard way creates the danger of fragmentation. But this is nothing new to Berners-Lee.

"When tables were introduced to HTML there were four or five different approaches, but as soon as it moved to one standard it was open and everyone could add to it," he said.

For businesses using and developing web-based activities, Berners-Lee said, "Data is the core of the enterprise and will last longer than technology." Corporate users do not want to be tied to a particular platform, he said.


For someone held in such high esteem, it is reassuring to know that Berners-Lee suffers from the same ailment as the rest of us. His inbox is flooded with spam and he supports a crackdown on spammers.

Spoofing, where spammers fraudulently change addresses to make their messages appear to be from someone else, particularly frustrates Berners-Lee. "This undermines the e-mail system. We must prosecute cheats," he said.

However, he said spam was not a web problem. "E-mail was around before the web, and e-mail is the problem with spam."

Dealing with junk e-mail requires both technology and policy measures. Berners-Lee said e-mail software should be able to distinguish between data and programs.

"Data just sits, whereas programs do things. Some e-mail software does not distinguish. It lets you click on a harmless picture just as easily as you would on something that will destroy your machine," he said.

For Berners-Lee, the web works because of its universality which ensures accessibility. A web access initiative is an integral part of the W3C's work. The organisation is tasked with ensuring the web is device-independent and future-proofed so that it can adapt to new situations, can accommodate different personal styles and provide indexing based on captions.

"Accessibility is not just about websites," he said, "It is also about the browsers and media players and how they interact with screen readers, as well as making tools easy to use."

CV: Tim Berners-Lee

A graduate of Oxford University, Tim Berners-Lee holds the 3Com founder's chair at the Laboratory for Computer Science and Artificial Intelligence at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology.

He directs the World Wide Web Consortium, an open forum of companies and organisations with the mission to lead the web to its full potential.

Berners-Lee has a background of system design in real-time communications and text processing software development. In 1989 he invented the world wide web while working at Cern, the European Particle Physics Laboratory. He wrote the first web client (browser-editor) and server in 1990.

Before moving to Cern, Berners-Lee worked with Image Computer Systems and before that was a principal engineer with Plessey Telecommunications in Poole.

The W3C

The World Wide Web Consortium was created to lead the web to its full potential by developing common protocols to promote its evolution and ensure interoperability.

The WC3 is an international industry consortium jointly run by the Massachusetts Institute of Technology IT Laboratory for Computer Science in the US, the European Research Consortium for Informatics and Mathematics, headquartered in France, and Keio University in Japan.

The W3C provides a repository of information about the web for developers and users and various prototype and sample applications to demonstrate the use of new technology. More than 400 organisations are members of the consortium.


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