Creator of World Wide Web Holds Court

Sir Tim Berners-Lee
Sir Tim Berners-Lee speaks at the Web 2.0 Summit
Photo: David Needle

SAN FRANCISCO — For Sir Tim Berners-Lee, the decision to keep the Web open had a simple explanation: “Otherwise, it would not have worked.”

During an onstage interview here at the Web 2.0 Summit last night, the inventor of the World Wide Web detailed his thoughts on how his creation has developed and the dangers it faces.

Given his background as a staunch advocate of an open Web through such efforts as his World Wide Web Foundation and leadership of the World Wide Web Consortium (W3C) Web standards group, it might not be a surprise to hear that he sees one danger as a lack of openness.

If the Web were less open, users might be forced to scour multiple ranges of siloed, unconnected content to find the information they seek, he said.

“If you had to put things in SGML or Word format or something else … you constrain it,” Berners-Lee said.

During his interview with conference host Tim O’Reilly, Berners-Lee also faced the question of whether he’s worried about the future of the Web.

“Basically, I’m always worried about anything large or someone coming in to control it — a company or a large government,” he said. “Whenever there’s a play to make a stranglehold, that’s a bad thing.”

But speaking of government, openness doesn’t just end with the Web for Berners-Lee: He also said he’s been pushing for more open access to public-sector data.

“The U.S. government has been very positive about putting more data out there,” he said, noting that there seems to be agreement on both sides of the political aisle that this would be a positive thing to do.

Another challenge for the Web is not just staving off closed systems, but expanding access to it.

“Only 20 to 25 percent of humanity use the Web at all,” he said. “Maybe 80 percent live in a place where there’s a signal, but you can’t get [for example] the Ethiopian signals they need,” he said. “So it’s not only access, but that [Web sites] are designed appropriately for other cultures.”

Berners-Lee also faced some questions about design decisions that made the Web what it is today. In particular, O’Reilly mentioned that the infamous “404 error” has been called one of the reasons for the Web’s success, and noted that the fact that links can break safely has been a key to its scalability.

Berners-Lee agreed, adding that although it might be frustrating to see that a Web site can’t be found, the 404 error was an important inclusion in the World Wide Web’s design.

“The link is either there or not there, so you have to make sure the system is consistent,” he said. “People thought it was horrible to not be consistent. It turns out fine [on a closed system] like a CD-ROM, but [not] as things get bigger and bigger.”

The Web’s next steps

Asked about the growing popularity of mobile, Berners-Lee said there are challenges ahead and emphasized the need to have systems and tools that let developers design independently from the device.

“It reminds me of the time when 800 x 600 resolution was trendy, and you’d be asked to tune your screen to 800 x 600” to view a site properly, he said. “It’s not just about moving to mobile, we have to design things independently,” so they’ll run anywhere.

Berners-Lee also said a lot of people have misunderstood what the burgeoning Semantic Web is about, so he’s been promoting a simpler concept called linked data.

“It’s not about adding meaning, it’s where you’ve already got meaning in the existing database,” he said. “People use the word ‘semantic’ to mean a lot of things. Linked data is a simpler idea — that you put the data out there and make links so I can find stuff.”

Wary of cloud computing

But while Berners-Lee may be fond of some of the latest developments to impact the Web, there’s one he’s not fully sold on yet: cloud computing.

While he agreed that there is an inevitable drive to have more Web-based applications, he added that the idea can’t be readily applied to all uses.

“Whenever I do anything financial, I like to do it with software that’s installed on my machine,” Berners-Lee said. “I want to be able to install stuff.”

“One of the gating factors of Web apps taking off is trust. How do we determine, when software is taking data from here, here, and here, that we can trust it? There are cross-scripting threats and a lot more design that needs to be done.”

Still, he idea can’t be ruled out entirely, he added.

“If we get a solution to these problems, Web apps will be amazing because you’ll be able to mix applications and all the data that’s out there,” he said.

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