Tim Berners-Lee: The One Who Started It All

World-Wide Web creator looks to the future

The World-Wide Web was created in 1989 by Tim Berners-Lee, an Oxford University graduate with background in real-time communications and text processing software development. Berners-Lee devised the basis of the Web as a method of enabling the people working on a project to easily link to each other's information.

Berners-Lee was a consultant at CERN, the European Particle Physics Laboratory, near Geneva, Switzerland, when he found himself having to figure out the relationships and interdependencies between people, programs, and pieces of hardware at CERN. Working from an earlier program he had written, he made a hypertext file system-one designed to lay a new image over the old one every time the user found a new avenue to explore and clicked on a given word or phrase. "CERN had very complex structures," Berners-Lee says. "I needed the power of hypertext and the unrestrained ability to represent any relationship. This sort of information about what is going on and what is related to what is very important when you're running a project."

Berners-Lee quickly began to see his program as helpful to any group of people working together. "The idea was, it would be a common knowledge base. First, I wanted the people to be able to get all my information. But more importantly, I wanted to know if they already had used it. There was a requirement that if two groups started using information independently, and they started to develop links between the groups, that they could represent these links. The knowledge bases could then fuse without having to make any big changes or to copy databases."

After producing a Web prototype, Berners-Lee acquired a Next computer, which had just become available. He then wrote a WWW browser and a WYSIWYG editor, both within a two-month period in late 1990. He credits the NextStep environment with the short completion time. Development time for a browser on the X Window System subsequently took a year, he notes.

Berners-Lee and a CERN collaborator, Robert Cailliau, continued to develop the Web working in the Next environment, sharing their ideas using hypertext as they worked. As the work went on, Berners-Lee realized the huge potential of the application. But he also realized that people might never use it if they couldn't find some useful information to link to in the first place. So he and Cailliau began putting in gateways to various databases, each with its own server giving it a continuous link to the Web. "When you say 'I designed a neat hypertext system,' you put yourself in the ranks of thousands of people who have done it before," Berners-Lee says. "You can explain to people until you're blue in the face that it's neat, but it won't wash because nobody will read it if there is no data in there. And nobody will put any data in there because there's nobody reading it. The way we found of bootstrapping it was by finding servers which provided entry to existing databases. That was a really powerful way of getting large amounts of data on-line very quickly."

But the expansion brought Berners-Lee some regret. In turning the Web into largely an information resource, he also found that the Web's collaborative element got lost. Those who maintain the servers must now be in the loop when changes are made, instead of allowing users to make immediate hypertext links in others' work. "It lost its immediacy, and that's something I'm pushing for very much-to bring the collaborative aspect of it back and to make it more interactive, so that the knowledge can be fresher," Berners-Lee says.

The bootstrap worked. The Web expanded slowly at first, then caught fire in 1993. The availability of the Mosaic interface tool, as well as companies and organizations eager to get their information servers in on the ground floor, led to an explosion in traffic. World-Wide Web volume on the National Science Foundation network backbone (NSFnet) service rose from about 5,000 megabytes in March 1993 to 750,000 megabytes in March 1994. During a nine-month period ending last March, the number of Web servers increased from about 130 to more than 1,260.

Although he still has ties with CERN, Berners-Lee moved earlier this year to Cambridge, MA. There, based at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology he directs the W3 Organization (W3O), an industry consortium now being formed, whose job it will be to coordinate the evolution of standards and contributions. Although not a standards body itself, the W3O will be able to work closely with such bodies during the development of standards. A list of founding members is expected in about a month, after contracts are signed. "We already have a long list of people who have been extremely excited about joining and pushing us to get going," Berners-Lee says.

An objective that Berners-Lee hopes the W3O will help with is insuring that the Web standards remain both open and common to all servers. He worries that "We could have companies going out and making sub-worlds of the Web, which only work with their software and which are not accessible by other people. I feel that would be a major step backward and I'm sure it's something the world doesn't need." Technological changes will be another item on the W3O's agenda, changes that include a more efficient protocol and adding of computer-readable semantics. In the future, Berners-Lee expects that computers will do a lot of the Web browsing that people now do themselves. However, that's possible only if the computer can read an object and determine exactly what it's looking at.