Tim Bray charts new course with the W3C

Vancouver’s Tim Bray first showed the world what the Web looks like on a 3D map in 1995 and is arguably the Internet’s primary cartographer. Now, the map-making skills he’s acquired over the years might come in handy on a personal level — he’s charting a new direction for himself.


Bray is stepping down as chief executive officer of Antarcti.ca — a data visualization firm that he founded in 1999. He plans to take a more back-seat role in the company, possibly as chief technical officer. If he has any additional plans, like starting a new company, he’s not saying.

The Web’s inventor, Tim Berners-Lee, also named Bray to a new, prestigious technical advisory group in December 2001. This group will be overseen by the World Wide Web Consortium (W3C), and is accepting input and questions from various bodies associated with the W3C — plus other individuals and consumer bodies — in regards to what Bray calls “”architectural tension”” on the Net. It’s a job that’s been historically looked after by Berners-Lee, but is now too big for one person to take care of.

“”There’s a lot of different people working on new developments, technologies and protocols for the Internet, and a lot of them work in the context of the Web Consortium,”” explains Bray. “”Somebody (in the W3C) has to have the responsibility of trying to make sure that the Internet hangs together and works remarkably well as it has been.””

With Antarcti.ca, Bray’s biggest claim to fame has been developing the two- and three-dimensional visualization software called Visual Net. The company hosts a sister Web site at Map.net, which uses the software to allow surfers to look at the world’s Web sites on a map of Antarctica as though they were actually places of interest on the world’s most inhospitable continent.

Map.net was slammed upon its launch by at least one analyst because sites like Yahoo! and Reel.com had, by then, dropped similar “”fly-through”” navigational tools after surfers started experiencing vertigo and technical problems. Bray says the company is now targeting Visual Net towards smaller organizations and universities who could use the software to map out their intranets or databases.

Prior to his work with Antarcti.ca, Bray was involved in creating the world’s first commercial search engine at Open Text Corp. in 1994 — a company he had co-founded in 1989. He also co-invented Extensible Markup Language (XML), which is used in business-to-business e-commerce transactions, in 1996.

Bray says he left the W3C’s XML Working Group and started Antarcti.ca three years ago because he wanted to try something new.

“”Suppose you were living in the days before the invention of the modern hot and cold water faucets, and suppose you were the guy who sat down and designed how they work,”” he says. “”Well, would you want to spend the rest of your life selling hot and cold water faucets?””

His time in the XML group, however, was marked with internal strife. In June 1997, he was booted from the team while editing the language’s specifications. Microsoft, which uses the language in its Office XP software, launched a complaint to the W3C because the company felt Bray was in a conflict-of-interest position. (Bray worked as a contractor for Netscape, Microsoft’s main Web browser rival at the time.) Bray was reinstated two months later, but only after an editor from Microsoft joined the team.

Bray has since been outspoken about Microsoft’s involvement in XML. He wrote an essay about his experience with Microsoft on his contracting business’s Web site, Textuality.com. In 2000, he also took a shot at Microsoft CEO Steve Ballmer in the press for over-hyping XML as the next “”cancer cure.””

But such outspokenness is ultimately part of Bray’s nature, according to Dan Connolly, a W3C member on the new technical advisory group who has known Bray for five years.

“”He’s definitely willing and able to speak out on things,”” says Connolly. “”He’s pretty articulate and not afraid to make a fool of himself. He’s an advocate for simplicity and he likes to rein in stuff that’s a little over-hyped.””

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