Tim Berners-Lee, Director, W3C

Sir Tim Berners-LeePerhaps for some, being credited with
inventing the World Wide Web would be more than enough as far as life accomplishments go.
But for Sir Tim Berners-Lee, it’s merely the beginning of something even more fulfilling.

The man who was named by Time magazine as one of the 100
greatest minds of the 20th century is now busy channeling his energies
into the work of the World Wide Web Consortium (W3C), a standards body
he founded and now directs. He spends his time hailing the virtues of the Semantic Web and
working to create standards that will drive the Web to its full
potential.

Moments after delivering a keynote address
at the SpeechTek Conference in New York earlier this week,
Sir Tim sat down with internetnews.com to discuss the state of
the Web browser market, the growth of the Semantic Web and some of the
challenges facing the W3C.

Q: Are you pleased with the way the Web browser has evolved since
you created the first Web client in 1990?

Oh yes. We’ve come a long way with Web browsers, but there are still
things to do to get it right. When we talk about Web browsers, we have
to talk about standards compliance. That’s an important issue that we’re
working hard to address at the W3C.

The other big issue for all users is the question of security.
In general, software companies should take more responsibility for
security holes, especially in browsers and e-mail clients.
There are some straightforward things the industry should be doing right
now to fix things, and I don’t know why they haven’t been done yet.

For instance, we know that not many people are interested in
downloading executable code, either from a browser or from e-mails.
Generally, when you browse the Web, you don’t need to be running
executable scripts. People aren’t sending each other software programs.
You’ll agree that it’s very rare that you’ll be e-mailing a program to a
friend or a colleague.

But somehow the software client itself doesn’t understand that
obvious fact. You could build the client to display pictures, text,
documents and not ever execute scripts. The fact that there’s no
concrete wall between browsing e-mail and installing software is
amazing.

You can simply make an e-mail client that doesn’t execute attachments
and fix that problem right away. That’s a straightforward way to
protect users. What has happened now is that people have become scared
of attachments in general. People don’t
send me photos because they say I don’t like attachments. Wrong.
Attachments are fine but I’m not just going to execute any of them.

Also, that operating systems aren’t able to distinguish between
things which can carry a virus and which don’t is a mistake.

Q: Is that an underlying problem with the architecture of the
browser?

No, not at all. It’s a very straightforward fix for a serious
problem, and I’m amazed it hasn’t been taken care of. Another thing that
makes viruses spread more rapidly is this illegal practice of forging
‘from:’ addresses in e-mails. I think SPF is
something that should be more widely used to thwart e-mail address
forgery.

The technology is there to deal with this. SPF can be used right now
to distinguish legitimate mail from illegal mail containing viruses
before any message data is transmitted. I encourage people to use SPF
because it provides the technology that works.

Q: Let’s talk about the Semantic Web. How far away is large-scale
adoption of that “giant database” concept?

We’re coming into phase two. It’s an exciting phase but we still
have a long way to go. We have the foundation in place with the
approval of RDF [Resource
Description Framework] and OWL [Web Ontology
Language]. In this phase, we can build up and out from those
foundations.

In practical terms, it has reached a certain level of maturity. At
SpeechTek here, there are a few people discussing the connection of
speech to the Semantic Web, and that’s always exciting. There are some
students independently at MIT doing some work and sparking a lot of
discussion about the connection. There are a lot of programs coming out
connecting a lot of data and a lot of ontologies.

I suppose it’s a lot like where we were in 1992 and 1993. Back then,
the Web wasn’t stable, but we knew it was there and it held a lot of
promise. We knew it would grow and mature, but there were a lot of things
that we needed but didn’t have. This was pre-Google. Around
1991, you would go on the Web to look for something that wasn’t there.
Today, that information is there and we can find it easily.

So, I think that’s where we are with the Semantic Web. We know it
will mature, but we’re not quite there yet.

The excitement that it continues to generate is encouraging.
The military needs it; the health sector needs it. There’s already an
academic field around it. We have RDF and OWL as W3C recommendations,
which are big pluses. To that extent, the Semantic Web has already
reached a certain level of maturity.

Q: At this conference, IBM announced plans
to donate software for speech-enabled applications to the open
source community. Can the open source community play a key role in
driving innovation?

I’m not exactly sure what IBM will be releasing, but I think that
that’s a very positive thing. The industry is at a stage where
everyone is counting on improvements. Technology innovation is starting
to explode, and having open-source material out there really helps this
explosion. You get students and researchers involved, and you get people
coming through and building start-ups based on open source products.

It means that people in government, for example, are experimenting with
open source. That’s exactly what happened with the Web, pre-servers and
pre-browsers. People started using it without having to go through a
single person or company, and it took off. So there are a lot of ways
in which open source can be used for education, for prototyping. It just
spurs the market in many ways.

Q: In your speech here, you discussed the problem of big
companies taking control of standards. What can the industry do to
avoid that?

The industry needs to start thinking long-term. Start
thinking about what happens five years out, not six months. That means
coming to a conference and thinking about where your company is going,
and what will be important down the road.

The big buyers can play a significant role here. A lot of
people are now realizing that their data will live longer than their
software. A lot of companies are also subject to pressure from big
buyers, and that does help the cause. Large buyers have a lot of clout,
and they don’t like to be beholden to a particular company.

Q: What’s the biggest challenge facing the W3C today as it works
to develop these interoperable technologies?

I’ll give you three things that we always have to deal with. One is
the tension over patents and proprietary standards.
We’re trying to get the standards adopted despite the fact
that big companies are doing their own thing.

Another big problem is the question of patents and royalties. We’ve
made some huge strides, but it’s still something that may loom over us
going forward. It’s encouraging that a lot of large companies are
realizing that they have to allow royalty-free use of patents to take
the industry forward.

Q: But companies are still boasting about being granted thousands
of patents a year.

Yes, that’s true. But when it comes to joining a standards group,
they know they’ll be expected to allow the use of those patents,
royalty free. They’ve made that commitment, even without investigating
what patents they have.

We’re at a stage where the companies are getting the patents but
saying “we’re not going to charge you for implementing this particular
patent in a standard.” Some of these are huge companies that we never
expected would make that commitment. They were always staunch in their
advocacy of patents and royalties, but they are now realizing that going
the royalty-free route will create even bigger markets.

That realization, I think, has rippled through the industry and, with
that, we’ve been able to create the W3C Patent
Policy
.

Web Services also present a challenge for us. This is an area that’s
quite big, and we have a working group at the W3C to develop the
technologies that will lead Web services to their full potential.

Q: When you look at emerging technologies, is there something that
stands out and excites you?

Yes, one area to watch is the mobile Web. I’m seeing a lot of
initiatives and energy in this space. The same energy you see here at
this [SpeechTek] conference with the voice sector, you’ll see that
energy replicated in the mobile space. This will be a big area.
Over the next six months, you should watch this space for some exciting things.

But, we’re seeing the same problems with the big companies pushing
for something that will eventually fragment the sector. For instance,
this push for a .MOBI domain. Why did these people go out and push for a
new domain name? That makes no sense. They say it’s because they want
a strong mobile Web, but what does that mean? A strong mobile Web is
about device independence. It’s about letting users browse the Web from
any phone and from any device without limitations. How does .MOBI
offer that?

If you were to isolate all the mobile stuff under one domain, it
would die. It won’t be the real Web. In fact, what we suggest is to
take all the energy, and this desire to make the mobile Web accessible,
and pour it into the work at the W3C. We have already done a lot of work
around Device Independence.

What we really need to do is show how to use the existing technology
of the mobile Web to allow access to a unified Web from any
device, in any context, by anyone. I’d like to see us work towards some
really strong interoperability to say, “look, let’s make phones that meet
these standards. Let’s make Web sites that meets these standards.”

You don’t do that by creating a .MOBI domain. You do it by working
towards standards compliance.

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