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    Leslie Walker
    ".com" columnist Leslie Walker

    Hosted by Leslie Walker
    Washington Post Columnist
    Thursday, October 14, 1999 at 2 p.m.

    Welcome to ".com - Live." This week our special guest was the creator of one of the century's most powerful inventions — the World Wide Web. Tim Berners-Lee dreamed up the computer communication protocols that became the Web while working at a physics lab in Switzerland in 1989. Today he is director of the World Wide Web Consortium, the group that sets standards for the still-evolving medium.

    Tim Berners-Lee
    Tim Berners-Lee
    Jay Penni Photography
    Berners-Lee had an original vision of a way to connect computers to let people access and share information globally. While others before him had dreamed of hypertext systems that linked words and documents, he was the one who thought of a global hypertext system that could be linked to the Internet. The impact of his invention has been compared to Gutenberg's development of movable type, but Berners-Lee has never profited financially from his creation. He continues to pursue his dream of an independent Web serving a variety of needs — not merely as a commercial medium.

    "Weaving the Web: The Original Design and Ultimate Destiny of the World Wide Web by Its Inventor," is Tim Berners-Lee's first book. He lives in Cambridge and occupies the 3Com Founders chair at the MIT Laboratory for Computer Science. Below is a transcript of the dialogue.

    Leslie Walker: Hello everyone and a warm welcome to our guest, Tim Berners-Lee. We are honored to have him here today to talk about this medium that is transforming so many aspects of human society-more than anyone, probably, except Tim himself ever imagined. Please send in your questions. Let's talk!

    Leslie Walker: Please tell us what you had in mind when you dreamed up the World Wide Web. What were you hoping to accomplish?

    Tim Berners-Lee: What a question for a quick answer! An abstract space which could encompass all network-accessible information.

    Leslie Walker: Ideas take on a life of their own after they leave the minds that hatched them. I'm wondering in what ways your incredible invention has surprised you. Has the reality of the Web, for example, turned out to be bigger than you imagined? Or in any ways smaller, maybe disappointing?

    Tim Berners-Lee: It is wonderful when you look at all the richness of what is out there -- and that fact that (as I write) we still have one universal space rather than many fregmented separate spaces. On the side of disappointment is the lack of intuitive tools for anyone who browses to be able to create links and web pages and photo albums very easily and seamlessly in the course of their browsing.

    Washington, DC: It seems to me that one of the fundamental problems of the web is getting back a truly relevant set of results from a search. What do you think can be done so that in the future it will be easier to find the information one wants without sifting through hundreds of pages of useless information. Any thoughts on personal agents that would do the searching and sifting for you would also be appreciated.

    Tim Berners-Lee: People seem to expect a lot from a search. Remember that the question that most search engines answer is "What are all the documents which contain the word xxxx?". This is in fact a fairly silly question to ask -- it just happens to be one we have machines to answer. Using links -- and cultivating a good set of starting places -- is also a good way to find information.

    In the future, there will be data on the web which will allow you to ask much more structureed and specific questions. This is one of the reasons I am so keen on this "semantic web" araising -- but it will be an aspect of the web accessed through new applications to help a human user harness its power.

    Seattle WA: Web developers are very, very frustrated at how few technical standards exist and are actually followed on the Web. It makes designing Web pages a bear. Why can't the W3 be more aggressive at making the biggest Web software developers stop developing so many proprietary wrinkles to the common Web interfaces? In other words, can you HELP!!

    Tim Berners-Lee: Web standards exist - the people to get mad at are the software companies whose programs don't produce valid documents (HTML 4.0, for example), and web sites which put out non-standard stuff. W3C is not the web police - but we do run a self-service system at for checking HTML, XML and CSS files for validity.

    We can't force manufacturers to comply. The press can embarass companies, and buyers can walk with their dollars to other companies. I agree with you that the lack of standards compliance wherever it happens is a pain. Don't be part of it when you make a web site. Choose tools carefully. Get mad at companeis which don't live up to their promises.

    Colorado Springs, Colorado: As HTML has evolved, it has of necessity become more complex, to handle more tasks. But it has also become increasingly difficult to master since the days of the early Mosaic.

    Is there an end in site to this evolution? Or possible a "layered" approach to varying levels of HTML?

    Tim Berners-Lee: Yes, HTML as a monolithic block has levelled out. New HTML work will be based on a modular approach. New extensions to HTML will be done using XML namespaces. This is new modular technology and we are still figuring out how to do it -- like how an HTML browser should respond to new namespaces. But hopefully the result will be evolution without fragmentation.

    Leslie Walker: I saw a United Parcel Service truck recently and laughed at the big letters imprinted on its side panel:
    Then I read a few days ago that one thing you wished you'd done differently when you created the Web protocols was OMIT that second slash after http. I chuckled thinking about the UPS truck.

    Now I'm wondering, is there anything else you might do differently if you were inventing the Web again today?

    Tim Berners-Lee: Well, the double slash could have been omitted if I had reserved the ":" for that use only ... but people in some computer systems understood double slash (the Apollo domain system in particular).

    If I ddi it again I would have defined a clean subset of SGML from the start, I think, probably even simpler than XML. I might then have been tempted to make an HTTP message more like and XML document than an email message. But then those decisions were partly political, to seep in people who knew the existing formats.

    Leslie Walker: How often do you personally use the Web, and for what? We'd love details--like how many e-mail accounts, bookmarks, your favorite browser, whether you have cable-modem access at home?

    Tim Berners-Lee: I use the Web all the time at work - the w3c team just lives on it. Nothing is discussed unless it or a team copy of it is on the web. At home I have just the same set up as at work in MIT Lab for Computer Science: two 21" screens and a wireless headset. Home and work are linked by an ISDN line (128kb/s) which I find fine.

    At home I buy stuff on the web and look things up but i don't just surf for fun: it is always targetted and some specific goal.

    I have one email account and try to scan it all but don't always succeed. I use a lot of automatica filtering of mail into mailboxes.

    Somewhere, USA: It's an honor to speak with you. Were you involved in the development of the HTTP and TCP-IP protocols?

    Tim Berners-Lee: TCP/IP was well before my time. We are celebrating the 30th anniversary fo the Internet - and the 10th of the Web. In 1989 and 1990 I invented URLs, HTTP and HTML.

    San Francisco CA: America Online is probably the most powerful commercial force in cyberspace, yet it is not Web-based. Do you think eventually AOL will have to abandon its proprietary content areas and adopt the Web's open architecture?

    Tim Berners-Lee: (Because I run the vendor-neutral World Wide Web Consortium, I don't make comments about specific companies and their future.)

    Reston, VA: Just wanted to thank you...I have a enriching and fun career writing for a big Internet have made my dreams of a writing career come true.

    What aspect of the current Internet surprise you? e-commerce, chat forums, pornography?

    Tim Berners-Lee: Great .. the web is made by all of use... keep up the good work.

    Suprise? Nothing much surprises me out there -- the web is suposed to ne a neutral, universal space for society to use as it sees fit and for the web of life to exist in. And life can be faily weird, before the WWW or after. :)

    Colorado Springs, Colorado: I am curious about Mr. Berners-Lee, the man. Please, if it's not too personal, how has "inventing the Web" changed your life and lifestyle?

    Your role at W3C surely was not a goal just a decade ago...

    Tim Berners-Lee: The "inventor of the web" celebrity thing means I get to meet even more interesting people, but it is boring when people want to meet a celebrity rather than a person.

    The W3C role was just what seemed to eb needed at the time -- we go through life making changes when they seem necessary - the inventing had been done and it seemed as though the greatest need was for facilitation and coordination.

    New York City: Interactivity on the Web--no one seems to know what the heck this really means. Did you envision this as a two-way medium right from the start? How important was "interactivity" to your original vision, and what do you see going on out there on the Web now that you consider real "interactity"?

    Tim Berners-Lee: Interactivity was a word I used until people said that web browsers were interactive -- you can click. So I staretd calleding what I wanetd "intercreativity" . I want to be able to build stuff with someone else.

    For example, why can't I drag pictures into this form? WHy am I using a plain text form to enter data when this is a hypertext medium? Because browsers are not creative tools. The first web client was a browser/editor which would allow you to edit hypertext. It was simple, but making a link was two keystokes.

    Now just imagine that I could be writing this and you could be annotating it as I write, and we could drag videoconference windows of each other into the page. There's Reggie here taking lots of photos but they won't end up in this conversation because the tools are not that simple... But one day, one day....

    Leslie Walker: Many people are surprised that you never attempted to profit financially from your invention, while many Web entrepreneurs became millionaires -- even billionaires. Have you never--even in a weak moment--thought about joining the dot-coms in any fashion?

    Tim Berners-Lee: Certianly ... I thought of starting one, back in 1993. Decided not, though. Wouldn't have made the Consortium so vendor netral if it had been run by a .com.

    Besides some .edus can be fun, you know

    is the home of

    Leslie Walker: Tim Berners-Lee has to cut today's talk a bit short to meet the demands of all the people who want to talk to him while he's in Washington. So we are getting close to wrapping things up, folks.

    College Park, Md.: Hello Tim,

    How did your background in physics help you devise the Web?

    Tim Berners-Lee: I think there is an interesting connection between Physics and global engineering. In physics, you try to find microscopic laws of behaviour whose macroscopic effect will explain the behviour of the natural world. When you design a global system, you try to create microscopic (local) rules fo behaviour (protocols like HTTP) whose macroscopic affect is a consistent and social useful new medium. Many principles (such as simplicity) take across between the two.

    Alexandria, VA: What major changes in internet technology do you envision in the next 10 years? 25 years?

    Tim Berners-Lee: Just looking at the Web - the information space (rather that the underlying TCP/IP infrastructure), I see two main directions.

    Firstly, I hope we get that intuitive group-collaborative playspace whcih everyone -- grandchild to grandparent - will be able to use.

    Secondly, I hope we get a consistent and well-defined logical net of computer-processable knowledge: the Semantic Web.

    Both these will hopefully be around in 10 years' time. I hope they form a foundation which allows people to think and work together quite differently. I hope they are so powerful that they make possible (in 25 years) a leap we cannot even envision today.

    Gotta go. Thanks for the questions.
    is the home page of "Weaving the Web" which may answer some more.

    KUTGW everybody

    © Copyright 1999 The Washington Post Company

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