Today invention and innovation is a mostly a team effort and we have few Marconis and Bells to make heroes out of. However Tim Berners-Lee (OBE) is perhaps the "last of the Mohicans" as regards bringing about something that has genuinely changed the world - and looks likely to keep on changing it for a good few years to come.
Even the most begrudging of texts would acknowledge that he is the father of HTML and the World Wide Web protocol and is, therefore, the inventor of publicly accessible networking. In many ways breaking down one of computing's hardest areas (networking) in to something that even school children can use - if only through cleverly designed software that he himself played no part in.
The unassuming English academic, with thinning blonde hair, may not have created something that others couldn't, but by being in the right place at the right time he has written his name in large letters in computer history. This isn't to begrudge his programming talent, that is beyond question, but to acknowledge that chance and luck played a role in his good fortune (that has not lead to fortune of the financial kind.) In the words of the proverb, he was a healthy seed that fell on fertile ground.
Today we'll look back at the history of his invention and the thought behind it, while next time we'll look at his opinions and thoughts on the new "wired" age and his role as Chairman of the WWW Committee "w3.org." However, for insight, we must first explore his basic life story and computer background.
As Berners-Lee writes himself on his web site (www.w3.org/People/Berners-Lee) and in his book (Weaving The Web published by Harper-Collins) he did not invent network computing nor the Internet. The history of these mediums are the subject of another article - if not a whole series. But linking computers by phone wires has been going on since the late sixties, but this was basically an academic exercise that required team of technicians and programmers with the wisdom of Solomon and the patience of Jobe!
However they set the rules that remain unbroken to this day - that computers pass information back and forth in "packets" with headers and file information going before it - in order to tell the target computer what to expect and when.
(This is quite separate from data files which may have to be broken in to two (or more) packets in order to be sent by this method. All computer networking software does this automatically, but this explains the pauses and "wait states" that network computing involves.)
The inventors of Internet Protocol (IP) where Vinf Cerf and Bob Khan who worked for a good ten years on the project before it was ready for public (starting in the academic and hardcore marketplace) consumption.
Vint (who today works for the telecoms company MCI - itself a leading Internet player) tells his own condensed history like this: "The design of Internet was done in 1973 and published in 1974. There ensued about 10 years of hard work, resulting in the roll out of Internet in 1983. Prior to that, a number of demonstrations were made of the technology - such as the first three-network interconnection demonstrated in November 1977 linking SATNET, PRNET and ARPANET in a path leading from Menlo Park, CA to University College London and back to USC/ISI in Marina del Rey, CA."
Berners-Lee started life in the pre commercial computer age and the first thing he needed in order to own one was a soldering iron. His first (unnamed) computer was a DIY effort based around an old television and a primitive M6800 processor ("all bought on the Tottenham Court Road in London") - the year was 1976 and this was nothing more than an interesting hobby.
Around then home computing (as we would recognise it today) was nothing more than a theory and for some an impossibility. Just a couple of years earlier Steve Jobs (of Apple Mac fame) had said that "I'll go and live in flat - rather than a house - so I can own one(!)"
Berners-Lee had academic parents that were even involved in the stone age Ferranti Mark 1 (based on five hole tape!), which is acknowledged in certain texts as "the first computer to be sold commercially." He found the maths it involved "interesting" and developed electronics as a hobby; later taking physics as his specialist subject in further education "because it seem to cross science boundaries."
This is a repeating theme in Berners-Lee's writing: That for problems to be solved requires knowledge that crosses various boundaries, subjects and fields. Maths, although the cornerstone of all computing, is not enough on its own, he argues. Physics helped him look at how nature regulated its communication problems and he put some of this thinking in to his software design.
Leaving college to join the commercial world - against the advice of some - he joined Plessey in Dorset (in 1978) where he worked on things such as bar codes and message relay systems. His own writing on the time suggests that location played a bigger role in his choice than the workload!
He didn't need to move house for his next job at D.G Nash (also in Dorset) where he developed software that drove printers and created limited multitasking operating systems - although nothing like we know them today.
Perhaps releasing that his skills were in great demand he went freelance which allowed time to develop private projects and cherry-pick work. In 1980 he became a Consultant Software Engineer at CERN (the European Particle Physics Laboratory in Geneva) a working relationship that continues to this very day - although the extent of it remains unrecorded.
Here he started to study how computers could be used to store and retrieve information in more flexible ways. He was far from alone in this (and many were probably ahead of him), but the unpublished software project Enquire formed part of what would later become the World Wide Web.
In 1989 he started to make history when he proposed a "global hypertext project to be known as the World Wide Web." This used chunks of the Enquire code and some of its unexplored theories. This was started in October 1990 and the first versions where being tested in house within months and early models were on the Internet, in general, by the Summer of 1991."
(Before this information was passed around by a series of information technologies such as Gopher (get it?) - where information was warehoused and sent later.)
When asked to give his thoughts at the time Berners-Lee says this: "The dream behind the Web is (sic) of a common information space in which we communicate by sharing information. Its universality is essential: the fact that a hypertext link can point to anything, be it personal, local or global, be it draft or highly polished.
There was a second part of the dream, too, dependent on the Web being so generally used that it became a realistic mirror (or in fact the primary embodiment) of the ways in which we work and play and socialise. That was that once the state of our interactions was on line, we could then use computers to help us analyse it, make sense of what we are doing, where we individually fit in, and how we can better work together." And so it came to pass..
In 1994, Berners-Lee joined the Laboratory for Computer Science at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT) - "the leading research institute in the world" and in 1997 was awarded the OBE (among his many awards and honours to numerous to list here.)
In 1999, he became the first holder of the 3Com Founders Chair (a leading technology body) and he is also Chairman of the World Wide Web Consortium (www.w3.org) which co-ordinates Web development worldwide, with teams at MIT (www.web.mit.edu), at INRIA in France, and at Keio University in Japan.
"The Consortium takes as it's goal (an ambition) to lead the Web to its full potential, ensuring its stability through rapid evolution and revolutionary transformations of its usage." Says the official text today.
Next time we'll find out what he thinks of cybersquatting (buying up famous names for future), streaming media and the future of the Internet.
In the first past of this article we look at how London-born Tim Berners-Lee wrote the code that created the "www" protocol that is the corner stone of the Internet. We also looked at his academic background (he had parents that were both involved in early day computing) and the thinking that made the system what it is today.
However it is important what we must make clear is that Berners-Lee did not invent the Internet, as is commonly believe, nor did he write the first web browser (Mosaic) - nevertheless he is the man that has made the medium accesbile to a wide variety of people throughout the world by inventing the central hypertext (control codes with in ASC11 text) - and deserves healthy applause for that.
However the medium is slipping away from him and w3.org (www.w3.org). Today parts of the service are nothing to do with him. "Electronic mail was around long before hypertext systems... videoconferencing and streaming audio channels use different protocols (than mine) to communicate." He says today.
In one interview he even went as far as saying that the control of standards could be wrestled away from the control of the w3.org by "powerful commercial interests that wanted to work outside of general consensus."
However he sees his invention more as an idea than a physical product: "The Web is an abstract space of information." He told one interviewer. "A medium where information is exchanged."
There is two parts to any Internet argument: The technical and the psychological (perhaps that should be simply "human.") Creating a product is one thing, public exceptence and use is another. The fact that a product exists and that it is well designed is not in itself the reason for its success - although it may well go some way to explaining it.
Berner-Lee is a programmer and an accedemic (although a modest one) and we have to view him as one. Part of the Internets popularity is due to its power and flexibility, some it due to the fact that writers and journalists promote it and explain how to use it.
Free speech is one thing but when I want information on health issues (to name but one) I want it from someone that is qualified to write about the subject - Berners-Lee's answer is some form of "certificate regulated by a third party organisation" - presumably aproved by w3.org.
Equally the commercial sector has just as much to make the system work with support, information and easy-to-use software (a fact that BL does not deny.) Berners-lee is a programmer and knows that web product takes time that few have the learning and interest to put together. His ideas for making the Internet more interactive is "software that links resources and information by the click of a mouse... Also there is a need for systems to be created in which information can be presented only to a select band of people - this is an underdeveloped area."
W3.org (which Berners-Lee is Chairman) is not a police force, if you break its laws they don't send around a uniformed police force. In many ways it's a bunch of accedemics; most of them on the state pay roll - it is cetainly not a cross section of those that use the Internet for leasure or gain.
He explains there work with these words: "We do a certain amount of putting out fires, and a certain amount of growing -- nursing little trees. We've found that different technical areas, different political and social areas -- each one has to be treated on its merits, because the timing constraints and existing situation tend to be different. In the final analysis, we are guided by our own perceptions of where we're going, and by feedback from the advisory committee.
We put a lot of conflicts in front of the members. After all, our members do represent those people who are seriously interested and involved in the growth of the Web. They are the people best positioned to help us answer those questions."
The "universality" of the Internet is as much a problem as a benefit - you can be thrown in jail for drinking a beer at 20 in the USA, in some parts of the world the age of sexual consent is 13!
Berner-Lee (through w3.org) has had to involve himself in debates about Internet porn and other dubious content - starting in the wake of a Newsweek cover story. A clear case of w3 being railroaded. Pornography has transfered to every public medium and if w3.org had had their heads screwed on they would have had their arguments and PR well laid out in advance. They should have put the reasoned argument that they set technical standards and not public morality!
Today he seems happy that the web has created a wealth of information and now information is available to a far wider group of people. But his argument is that we surf in the wrong way- we should go to trusted and official sites and work through the hyperlinks - because they are like "badges of approval."
But try as you might we have all more access to information that is plain wrong than ever before - journalists have to be trained and most go through the editing process, webmasters do not. In other words standards are lower. Equally accedemics or the plain knowledgable do not, by right, have the ability to explain their views clearly.
The Web is an ongoing phenomena and it has been said that parent organisations are "merely walking behind the train laying the track!" While BL argues against this, there is a litt;e bit of the truth in this. Others are setting protcols such as Real Audio and MP3 that are not being set before the W3.org for their stamp of approval.
However he sees a seachange in how people view the Internet: "Security issues have been pushed further down the agenda because users release that technologies are in place and they will be improved." The introduction of Java (the programming language) get's the BL seal of approval as it "increases flexibility."
There is many debates: The call for new graphic formats such as .png that allow quality images from shorter files or improvement in Internet tracking to combat abuse, but as his (and my) words can be out of date almost as soon as they hit the page: "An Internet year is presently about three months!" He told one European interviewer.
He has also stated his opposition to cybersquating (registering names with an intention of selling them to others later) as the "waste of a limited resource," without stating a clear solution.
Despite his positioning BL isn't a propeller-head, but he seems exited by the prospect of computing becoming more like the Internet - a computer being an ever larger pond of information and the boundries between computing and the Internet fading. However for progress - read complexity.
(This is a false dawn that many technology futurists have been predicting - the clean slate approach where progress is made through software being contimually updated. The browser and operating system being "laid fresh each morning." A very typical attitude of those that live and sleep computing.)
WW3 is like most committes, overflowing with bright ideas by bright people, but spends most of it's time talking to itself and is no stranger to vagary. It's website (www.w3.org) is a mess that wouldn't engage anybody that wasn't seriously interested in subject.
The committee needs to talk to government about supporting the Internet with better backbone support (getting European schools hooked up to some low cost system would help) and even government (and hyper-government) subsidy to help the third world join the technology party.
BL has all the flaws of many over educated people, they see the technology rather than the people. Every year the Internet doubles in size and users from all over world join in - some of them not speaking English as their first langauge. Change for the sake of change is hardly desirable..
Nevertheless BL sees virtue in speed, progress and breakthrough: If an Internet year is only three months will this not take a physical toll on those in the industry? Asked one interviewer: "The plus point is that we will be able to live three or four hundred Web years, which will be very exciting..." Said Berners-Lee in response.
Peter Hayes (c) 2000