Web inventor pushes for new standard

Tim Berners-Lee has made a career out of resolving Internet pet peeves. Ten years after he invented the Web, making the Internet user-friendly, he is still drafting lists of things that could work better.

Despite the technical advancements that have followed its development, the Web still has a long, long way to go, Berners-Lee says.

"We are halfway through the development of the Web," he told attendees at the closing keynote address at the Internet Commerce Expo in Boston this week. Chief on his list of complaints is that the Web is still too complex, too inefficient, and not private enough.

"It's amazing the things you can do with a search engine today. But it's also amazing the things you can't," he says.

For the Web to become the ultimate resource, it needs to be easier to navigate. To this end, Berners-Lee is pushing the Resource Description Framework specification, which would index the Web as efficiently as a card catalogue tracks a library of books.

Berners-Lee says search engines aren't effective in the way they cull data from the Net. Web publishers are to blame, because they fail to anticipate how search engines or intelligent agents will interpret their pages.

The RDF spec is essentially a way of organising data about data. It would be embedded in the HTML code of Web pages, Berners-Lee says. Agents could use this information to interpret, for example, the data about an item for sale, including its colour, model number, or pricing information displayed on any given Web page.

Berners-Lee says this type of technology would help search engines catalogue information by subject, and it would give intelligent software agents the capability to share and exchange pricing and product inventories.

"People think e-commerce is just people browsing, but there's more to it than that," Berners-Lee says. "More and more people are using programs and agents to shop for the best deal, and that's how they're going to be getting to your site." He offered the suggestions to a room full of techies and businesspeople who came to the three-day conference to share ideas about how to use the Web effectively.

Privacy on the Web is key to e-commerce's success, Berners-Lee says. The Platform for Privacy Preferences (P3P) standard promoted by the W3 Committee is a start, he adds.

P3P works behind the scenes as you surf the Web. When you hit a P3P-supported site, the page serves up its privacy policies and information. Then, based on privacy settings you've specified, your browser tells the site the information and actions it may track, and whether it shares the data with third parties.

Berners-Lee also took a jab at careless site managers responsible for the "Error 404" messages rampant on the Web.

"If you keep changing your URL, your company is letting down anyone who's bookmarked the page," he says.

He scolded Web developers for relying heavily on form-submission buttons, which can prevent users from being able to bookmark certain Web pages.

Ultimately, the success of the medium doesn't rely on just a part of the Web, but the entire community working together, Berners-Lee says. "It's amazing that the globe has been able to work together to accomplish what we already have."

Berners-Lee first proposed the Web in 1989 while he was working at the European Laboratory for Particle Physics in Geneva, Switzerland. Today, the closest thing to a manager of the Web is W3C, a non-profit, 240-member organisation. W3C encourages the development of open and more sophisticated communication on the Web.

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