Tim Berners-Lee, 44, the British physicist who directs the World Wide Web Consortium at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, has had loftier goals than money-making in the 10 years since he conceived of one of the technological world's greatest innovations. Not that there's anything wrong with making money, he insists. But Berners-Lee has dedicated his work to the health and continued growth of the Web, which now means heading the world's coordinating body for Web development instead of founding the latest Internet startup.
In his new book, Weaving the Web, written with Mark Fischetti, Berners-Lee details the confluence of ideas, technological developments and influences that enabled him to conceive of the Web. He also talks about the many stumbling blocks he encountered. And then he goes on to persuade his readers that they, too, should be more concerned and more involved with directing the course of this new medium.
Written in an easy-to-read, conversational style, the book may finally bring about what Berners-Lee's modesty has helped prevent in the past. He may finally achieve in the public eye, instead of only in the annals of technology history, his rightful place as creator of the Web. He's not only not as rich as Bill Gates or Marc Andreessen he hasn't been as well recognized, either.
While acclaim has been slow in coming for the publicity-shy Berners-Lee, it is finally arriving. Last year, he won a prestigious MacArthur Foundation "genius" grant to continue his work on standards development with the W3C. In March, Time listed him as one of the 100 greatest minds of the 20th century.
Amazing as it may seem now, Berners- Lee actually had a tough time convincing people that he was on to something. In 1989, he was working at the CERN particle-physics laboratory in Geneva when he proposed a "global hypertext project."
"Imagine making a large three-dimensional model, with people represented by little spheres, and strings between people who have something in common at work," he wrote in his proposal. "Perhaps a linked information system will allow us to see the real structure of the organization in which we work."
His story of the Web's development actually starts much earlier. Unlike Newton getting beaned by an apple, the concept of the Web never came down to one "Eureka!" moment, he insists. The son of mathematicians, Berners-Lee was intrigued early on by the idea that a computer could be programmed to complete connections similar to the way the brain does. When he first took a software-consulting job with CERN in 1980, he wrote a program called Enquire to help him remember connections between the various people, computers and projects at the esteemed laboratory. The program gave him larger ideas. "Suppose all the information stored on computers everywhere were linked," he recalls thinking.
After getting the go-ahead at CERN for his global project, Berners-Lee started writing the underpinnings of the Web. He eventually wrote the hypertext markup language, or HTML; the hypertext transfer protocol, or "http://" that today begins the many million Web addresses; and the uniform resource locators, or URLs, that have become akin to the telephone numbers of cyberspace.
Curiously, technology companies were slow to grasp what was in the offing. They couldn't understand how a system that was decentralized and had no central repository of data would thrive. Berners-Lee recalls being shot down at his first Internet Engineering Task Force meeting for his suggestion about creating a "universal document identifier."
"How could I be so presumptuous as to define my creation as 'universal'?" he recalls sensing. But the Web's following did build in a grassroots sort of way. In July and August 1991, the Web server at CERN was getting from 10 to 100 hits per day, which would soon begin to double every few months until technicians were recording 10,000 hits per day in 1993.
Some of the most interesting insights into the coming commercialization of the Web are recounted by Berners-Lee, who in 1993 visited the National Center for Supercomputing Applications at the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign, where student Marc Andreessen and staff member Eric Bina were creating the Mosaic Web browser.
"It was becoming clear to me in the days before I went to Chicago that the people at NCSA were attempting to portray themselves as the center of Web development, and to basically rename the Web as Mosaic," he recounts. "At NCSA, something wasn't 'on the Web,' it was 'on Mosaic.'"
But Berners-Lee gives credit where credit is due. He points out that Andreessen, who would later hook up with entrepreneur Jim Clark to found Netscape Communications (and hire away the NCSA team), did work that eventually led to the more widespread popularity of the Web.
Berners-Lee admits he has toyed with the idea of starting a company. He opted instead to start the W3C. "My motivation was to make sure that the Web became what I originally intended it to be a universal medium for sharing information," he writes. "Starting a company would not have done much to further this goal, and it would have risked the prompting of competition, which would have turned the Web into a bunch of proprietary products."
By following the consortium route, which led him to relocate from CERN to MIT in Cambridge, Mass., Berners-Lee has been able to maintain a neutral viewpoint. Among the initiatives the W3C has developed with its members, which include the top Internet and computer companies, are the Platform for Internet Content Selection rating system, the Platform for Privacy Protection and Extensible Markup Language.
Berners-Lee says he wrote the book not only to tell the story of the Web but also to warn that his goal for the Web to link credible information worldwide could be destroyed. He fears the growing consolidation of Internet service providers and the potential for one company to exert control over the medium and the content of the Web. In addition, he says, it's important for Internet companies to distinguish between independent advice and that which comes from paid partners. "The medium can be perverted, giving you what seems to be the world, but in fact is a tilted and twisted version," he writes.
This comes from a man who chose to maintain his integrity in the high-tech world rather than cash in. Had he taken the path to riches, the Web as we know it may never have been born.