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5th January 2004

SIR TIM BERNERS-LEE
WEAVING THE WEB

Brian Grainger

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brian@grainger1.freeserve.co.uk


 

It makes me very proud to be writing this as the first article of 2004. At last, the inventor of the Web, a Brit., has been honoured in the 2004 Honours List. This article provides some background to the news and also provides a review of the book, 'Weaving the Web'.

Readers outside the UK probably know that we have an Honours system where we call some people Sir John Smith rather than plain Mr Smith. What they may not know is how this comes about.

Twice a year, on New Years Day and on our Queen's official birthday in June, an Honours list is presented. This list is made up of people who have been nominated for honours and who have then accepted their nomination. Nominations come from various sources and our Prime Minister has a significant say on inclusions in the list. Honours come in various categories, top of the tree being a knighthood and, provided you are British, the right to the title 'Sir'. The Honours System is often used to reward people who have done certain things - like support the Prime Minister of the day! Some jobs are almost an automatic route to an honour. Despite these drawbacks the system does allow a means to give recognition to those the public feel deserving.

Some believe the Honours system to be an anachronism and an unacceptable form of elitism. Our present government is generally of this thinking and consequently have tried to 'modernise' the system. It is now possible to be nominated directly by the public, although I am not sure how. In this way an especially well thought of teacher, for example, could receive one of the lower categories of honour.

On the other hand the modernisation process has led to some controversial honours. In order to appear to make the system more egalitarian a number of our more popular singers have been given a knighthood - Sir Elton John and Sir Mick Jagger, a symbol of the anti-establishment, among them. In the past, such people may have obtained a lower honour, not a knighthood.

While I may question some of the honours that have been dispensed, I am very pleased with whoever it was that nominated Tim Berners-Lee for a knighthood. Here is a man whose work has changed, or will change, in some way the lives of virtually everyone in the world. He has done it quietly and without request for recognition or reward. Most of the general public probably do not know what he did, but use the fruits of his labour every time they surf the Web. He is that true Brit., quiet and reserved but, by his actions, influences the world!

Over the years a number of people and countries have laid claim to inventing the Internet or World Wide Web. We sometimes interchange the terms as if they are the same. They are not.

The Internet is the network of computers connected together. It has its roots in the Arpanet of the USA and consequently the USA lays claim to inventing the Internet. In order to communicate across the Internet computers need to understand the messages sent between them. It wouldn't work otherwise. Consequently, the basic protocols used to send those messages - Transmission Control Protocol and Internet Protocol (TCP/IP) - are vital and the protocols inventors have also been said to have invented the Internet.

However, connected computers that can talk to each other are nothing unless you can use them. Two types of application were needed. A means to send messages from one user to another was solved by e-mail. The other application was the ability to store and share files. One example application to cope with this task was called Gopher. Developed at the University of Minnesota this used a series of menus to guide users to the documents they wanted. Whether this failed because the University wanted to charge business users for the Gopher system, or whether it was because this system was not as intuitive as hypertext will remain an unanswered question. What we know is that Tim Berners-Lee developed a system based on hypertext. He developed Hypertext Transfer Protocol (HTTP) for communicating hypertext over the Internet. He developed the Uniform Resource Locator (URL), which defined where a document was on the Web. Then he developed HTML, which allowed pages of information to be written. Of course, he still needed some user programs to use all these new tools. He developed a server program to store documents and then he developed the first browser, called WorldWideWeb, for his NeXT computer. Unlike most browsers used today this was also an editor. Tim Berners-Lee sees this as fundamental - so that anybody can be a contributor. All this work was done while Tim Berners-Lee worked for CERN, the European Particle Physics Laboratory.

Having developed the system Tim Berners-Lee had to market it, first within the CERN community and then world wide. As people got interested he had to contend with competing ideas and ensure his dream of a connected world where everyone was not just a browser, but could also be a contributor, took hold. Finally, Tim Berners-Lee worked to ensure that the Web was not controlled by business and that software tools were free. We now know that he succeeded, although there are always challenges to his dream. He now heads the World Wide Web Consortium (W3C), which develops the standards of the Web for all of us.

Tim Berners-Lee is a remarkable man, has changed our lives fundamentally, yet hardly anyone knows about him. In a recent newspaper exchange, which bemoaned the fact that the British tennis player Tim Henman was being considered for an honour, despite the fact he had never won a Grand Slam event, someone put forward the view that no Tim had ever achieved anything. How wrong they were. Maybe not Tim Henman, but Tim Berners-Lee is a sleeping giant. Well done that man who recognised his worth and nominated him for knighthood.

Arise, Sir Tim Berners-Lee.

Most of the information above about the early beginnings of the Web has been gleaned from the book, 'Weaving the Web'. This was written by Sir Tim himself and is the definitive book on the story of the Web. How it was developed and where Sir Tim would like to see it go is all covered. It is a fascinating story and you do not need to be a geek to understand it.

Starting with the problem of communicating with CERN engineers, the book describes how the concepts of the Web were born and how the building blocks were formed. After the development on the NeXT computer the story of how the Web was brought to Unix, the Macintosh and PCs is then told. An attempted hijack of the Web by NCA, Marc Andreessen and the Mosaic browser is discussed and how this led, in part, to the formation of the W3C. The browser wars are touched on and, interestingly, Sir Tim sides with Microsoft in believing the browser is an integral part of the operating system. However, the reasons for this, as explained in the book, are more clear than anything that Microsoft has come up with! It is interesting to note that the official browser of the W3C is NOT Netscape, Internet Explorer or Mozilla. It is called Amaya and, in keeping with the Tim Berners-Lee dream, it is an editor as well as a browser. It can be found on the W3C web site, http://www.w3.org .

The book then discusses some of the problems that the Web brings up, such as censorship and privacy.

Finally, the book covers where Sir Tim would like to see the Web go in the future. He discusses XML and RDF and his view of a symbiotic relationship between man and machine.

The book comes with one Appendix in the paperback edition, which is Tim Berners-Lee original proposal that he put to CERN management for development of the Web idea. Finally there is a glossary to the jargon and the many acronyms of the Web.

Weaving the Web, by Tim Berners-Lee, published in hardback in the UK by Orion Business. In paperback, it is published by TEXERE and cost 7.99 when first published.

14th April 2004

Britain may have given Sir Tim a Knighthood, but that is a rather cheap option. It has taken Finland to reward Sir Tim with cash!

Today, the Finnish Technology Award Foundation announced that the first recipient of the Millennium Technology Prize would be Sir Tim Berners-Lee. The award comes with 1 million Euros, which is a tidy sum even when converted to real money like Pounds Sterling or Dollars!

Sir Tim beat off 77 other challengers from 22 countries, who were nominated for the 2004 prize in four fields of technology:

  • health care and life sciences
  • communication and information
  • new materials and processes
  • energy and the environment

Sir Tim got his award for the development of the Web. This has significantly enhanced many people's ability to obtain information central to their lives according to Pekka Tarjanne, former secretary-general of the International Telecommunication Union and chairman of the International Award Selection Committee. He also says that the Web is encouraging new types of social networks, supporting transparency and democracy.

The official award ceremony will be on June 15th, 2004 in Helsinki's Finlandia Hall.

The award was established in 2002 by the Finnish public and private sectors and will be awarded every two years.

Further details of the Foundation and the award can be found on:
http://www.technologyawards.org

The press release from which this update was derived can be found at:
http://www.technologyawards.org/index.php?technologyawards=7d29558870278e4dcbd2176695576f94&article_id=3932


 

 

 

 


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