Three minutes with Tim Berners-Lee

If you're reading this, you owe something to Tim Berners-Lee. The founder of the Web, he now directs the World Wide Web Consortium (W3C), which sets technical standards for the Web. PC World caught up with Berners-Lee on his recent whirlwind book tour for Weaving the Web: The Original Design and Ultimate Destiny of the World Wide Web by Its Inventor.

PC World (PCW): Are you disappointed that so many people now think the Web is about e-commerce, and less about the collaboration and communication functions you first promoted?

BERNERS-LEE: Nope. I think they're both important. E-commerce seems to be running by itself, and collaboration seems to need something else that it doesn't have, but perhaps it's just a longer-term project. It's coming along.

PCW: What are your favourite examples of effective collaboration on the Web?

BERNERS-LEE: We find quite a bit of success within the W3C team. We have phone meetings in which we are all in different places, and everyone is sitting in front of a Web browser, and we have dialogue in chat sessions. We fire up our browsers, and everyone can see what is being discussed, and we can get material to everyone very quickly. And we don't have to travel to a meeting.

You can always find everything that's related, because everything, but everything, is on the Web. If it isn't on the Web, it is scanned or somehow sucked into an internal, private Web so that we can see it and talk about it. So that's good fun.

But on the other hand, the collaborative tools we have right now are, I feel, very crude. There's difficulty in bringing somebody into the team and showing them how to use (the tools). It's like the pre-Web days of the Internet, with all the proprietary protocols and different recipes.

PCW: Do you use white-boarding tools?

BERNERS-LEE: We have white-boarding tools but they're not integrated with the Web page; the result isn't a Web page. They're not integrated with the Web browser. And why not? There's a question of integration, which you also find underneath, where there are questions about the security frameworks . . . There are millions of pieces of the puzzle that are missing right now.

PCW: What do you think about phone surfing?

BERNERS-LEE: By voice?

PCW: Or on little tiny phone or palmtop screens.

BERNERS-LEE: Little tiny screens are, I think, perfectly reasonable.

The challenge now is to make sure we have one Web, and not a separate Web where certain types of information are available in a form produced for these tiny little screens. There are also some quite big screens that could still fit in your pocket. So sometimes it's a question of screen size, sometimes it's a question of the processing power, of bandwidth -- it's not obvious when you take something out of your pocket what the limitations will be.

And they may change. You may find that in five years, the buildings themselves will have built-in, high-speed local area networks. And do they also offer DHCP (Dynamic Host Configuration Protocol, a network service that automatically assigns TCP/IP address), so we can welcome visitors to have a connection? My house does. (In the future) that will mean truly portable things with high bandwidth, and then processor speed doesn't become such a limitation. Who knows how that will change in time?

PCW: What surprises you about the Web so far?

BERNERS-LEE: Over the past ten years, I have been most surprised by the number of people writing HTML by hand. I thought they would avoid it.

PCW: Many Web development tools generate HTML without you having to write it.

BERNERS-LEE: Yes, well, the first question is will they produce valid HTML... that can be widely read.

PCW: What do you consider the most promising thing about the Web today?

BERNERS-LEE: Collaboration. There are so many things to do that will put people in that direction.

In the long term what is exciting is data on the Web. Building on the XML layer with RDF (eXtended Markup Language with Resource Description Framework -- a kind of indexing technology) so that you can really expose the logic of the database. (Then) you can query the whole Web for structured information in a really wild fashion, and you can build some really, really cool applications on top of it. That's something I find really exciting. But it's going to take even more steps to get there.

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Peggy Watt

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