The first weaver


TIM Berners-Lee, the man who invented the World Wide Web, says even he can't define what the Web is any more it's changing that fast. "So don't bother with any books that claim to explain it all!"

But he does have strong ideas about what he'd like the Web to be in the not too distant future more secure and private, and more interactive (with things like "Aha!" and "Oh, yeah?" buttons). . . in effect, a universal information space, capable of linking anything, anywhere and, importantly, one that people will trust.

Watching Tim Berners Lee in action, you quickly see how he could have invented the Web. In Brussels recently to deliver a keynote address at this year's European IT Conference, he was almost jumping around the stage, his loud tie a bright flash of colour in an otherwise dark scene.

He blamed it on the Belgian coffee, but you got the distinct impression he'd have been like that anyway. And though his talk seemed logical at the time, my notes reveal a discourse that was decidedly non linear. Clearly, this man is hypertext in motion.

A forty something Oxford engineering graduate, Berners-Lee developed the Web because of a problem he was having while working as a software consultant at CERN, the European particle physics laboratory in Geneva, where the hundreds of researchers from all over the world needed a system that could link documents on different computers.

Hypertext, as proposed 51 years ago by Vannevar Bush, linked documents on the same computer. Berners-Lee's innovation was to apply it to the world of networked computers. Having developed a web for CERN in the late 1980s, an Internet version was released in 1991.

He wrote the first Web client band server software, and the URL, HTTP and HTML protocols, though now he says he should have simplified the clumsy address system. Indeed, he may yet do so.

Building a rocket would have been easier than building the Web, he reckons, and getting people to use the Web was no joke either. It took much arm twisting and a killer application a phone listing before it even began to take off.

Today, he says he's pleased that people are buying computers because of the Web, and he's pleased too at what he sees is its impact on business and democracy.

Since 1993 he has been director of the WWW (W3) Consortium, a non-profit organisation that sets standards and protocols. The consortium, with over 100 member companies, is now working on architecture, interlaces (including VRML for 3D graphics), and security, privacy and copyright.

Censorship and privacy are clearly much on Berners-Lee's mind, and he refers frequently to PICS, the consortium's proposal for a Web site rating system. It would mean access to certain sites could be controlled (probably at some node, e.g. by an Internet service provider).

As for privacy, he wants "to be able to send family photos to the kids' grandparents that's what I mean by a universal information space and be sure that they won't end up elsewhere. The security is improving all the time, but it's not yet complete."

The Web could also become more interactive, facilitating what he calls "inter-creativity", a kind of ethereal brainstorming (enter the Aha! function, which would link your comments to the relevant place on the site). The "Oh, yeah?" button he'd use to query something on a site.

As for browsers, he won't put his money on any one company. Instead, he believes the future will be modular, probably Java, and definitely not shrink wrapped. The distinction between browser and operating system will disappear too.

"Software won't be bought in, but taken from a variety of sources, reflecting the information you've downloaded," he says. "The war between Microsoft and Netscape is healthy competition, but the Web is much bigger than both of them, and browsers anyway are only a small part of the picture. The important part is content, and users control that."