Design of a decade

When he’s hard at work developing the next generation of the Internet, Tim Berners-Lee uses two 21-inch monitors attached to either an HP Vectra running NT or an HP712/80 running NeXTStep . At home, he has a duplicate NT system and IP over cable. On the road, it’s an IBM Thinkpad T20, though he also uses a Palm.

Berners-Lee, the inventor of the World Wide Web, offers these tidbits on his personal Web page, which is full of Frequently Asked Questions that he has endured since the Internet became a global phenomenon. The page is more about keeping people at bay than anything else. He offers a six-point explanation as to why he probably won’t return your e-mail, for example, and why he doesn’t have the time to listen to your great idea that could change the world.

In the United States, there has been considerable attention paid this week to Paul Kunz, who 10 years ago posted the first American Web page for the Stanford Linear Accelerator Center. But this is also a 10th anniversary for Berners-Lee. He officially launched the WWW (now known as W3) while working at the CERN research center in Geneva, Switzerland. Not surprisingly, the position of the U.S. as a world superpower turned the Internet into a typically American story of innovation and growth. While Al Gore has already tried to get in on the action, Berners-Lee is a much more important trailblazer.

Too often in IT the visionaries and pioneers are content to share old war stories or rest on their laurels. They appear only at the anniversaries and do little to suggest any further development of their ideas. In contrast, Berners-Lee has never let the Web alone. As sites spread like pollen on a windy day, he has taken on the complex issues that have dogged its evolution. Specifically, he’s doing the sort of grunt work that almost nobody enjoys, forming the W3 Consortium that creates Internet standards. Don’t talk to Berners-Lee about the opportunities in XML; he and the W3C are already looking at the embryonic next level, Resource Description Framework (RDF). This kind of leadership is the real reason we have reason to celebrate the Web’s 10th anniversary and expect big things in its future.

Then again, we’ve been expecting big things for some time now. I remember when I first joined this company, when the Internet had left the relative safety of academia and was finding its place in the office. At Computer Dealer News, where I was a staff writer, we regularly published and edited columns by industry experts who were trying to make sense of this new phenomenon. A common phrase kept coming up: though they could not be sure of anything else, these experts believed the Internet would “change the way we live, work and play.”

It became so common, in fact, that we had to put a ban on it, but by then the steamroller was in high gear. At trade shows, it was standard practice to open keynote speeches with a jump cut-filled video montage showing people of all walks of life doing tech-like things really quickly. Inevitably, the phrase, “The Internet changes EVERYTHING” would flash past, getting the audience all revved up for the exciting revolution that was happening before their eyes.

Though other slogans have since replaced these old standbys (now it’s all about using the Web to get “a single view of the customer”), the Internet was notable for how it forced everyone to get on board very quickly. According to Berners-Lee, it didn’t happen overnight. “I didn’t find lots of people willing to get excited about the idea of the Web,” he writes to prospective inventors on his page. “They quite reasonably asked to know why it was different from the past, or other hypertext systems. In retrospect, it was mainly that the decentralized database is removed, allowing the system to scale, but allowing for dangling links. But it took a long time for that to surface as the novelty.”

That novelty was enough to propel entrepreneurs, major hardware and software companies, enterprise corporations and venture capitalists to project all kinds of technology-related expectations on the new medium. The subsequent frustrations and roadblocks have clearly dissipated some of that enthusiasm, but mostly among those who saw the Web as a get-rich-quick scheme.

Now that the industry has begun to distinguish the appropriate revenue models, the standards work of Berners-Lee and the W3C may finally pay off with the evolution of a more cohesive platform for electronic commerce. I still think the Internet will change the way we live, work and play — we just had to understand the rules of the game first. These past 10 years? That was round one.

sschick@plesman.com

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