Feature: 1990: The way the Web was won

Like most turning points in the history of computing, the development of the World Wide Web in 1990 was less of a Big Bang and more of a new fusion of many ideas that had already existed for a long time.

There "was no 'Eureka!' moment. It was not like the legendary apple falling on Newton's head to demonstrate the concept of gravity," writes Tim Berners-Lee, the physicist and researcher who developed HTML, in his new book, Weaving the Web: The Original Design and Ultimate Destiny of the World Wide Web by Its Inventor (Harper Collins, 1999).

It was instead "a growing realisation that there was power in arranging ideas in an unconstrained Weblike way," Berners-Lee writes. "The Web arose as the answer to an open challenge, through the swirling together of influences, ideas, and realisations from many sides, until, by the wondrous offices of the human mind, a new concept jelled."

Working under the NextStep operating system on a Next workstation, he developed HTML as well as a Web browser-editor and the communications software defining Web addresses and HTTP.

"I happened to come along with time, and the right interest and inclination, after hypertext and the computer had come of age," Berners-Lee writes. "The task left to me was to marry them together."

CERN, the European Particle Physics Laboratory in Geneva, where he was working, hooked up the first Web server in 1991, and the number of hosts had swelled to 1 million within a year. In 1993, traffic on the Web grew 341,634 per cent. And the rest is history - history still in the making.

Now director of the World Wide Web Consortium in Massachusetts, Berners-Lee spoke with Computerworld about the continuation of his vision.

Q: How has the growth rate, both in numbers of sites and users, measured up against your initial expectations?

A: I didn't have any initial expectations, no five-year plan for the Web revolution. But after three months of continuous 1000 per cent annual growth in the load on just the first Web server, I got used to that rate of steady explosion.

Q: In the book, you say you have little time for the attitude that "commercially motivated material polluted the Web." What were your original expectations regarding the level of commercial activity on the Web?

A: The Web is universal - it allows for all forms of expression and social interaction. I didn't have any specific expectations about how much it was to be used - for commercial or any other use. For all I knew, it was going to collapse after a few months.

Cyberspace isn't a limited resource like land, which if taken by a shopping mall isn't available for a park. If you see a lot of commercial sites, that is because you choose them. The free, the personal and the academic sites are still there, and indeed, proliferating.

Q: Where do you think the balance lies between commercial activity on the Web and your original motivation to enable "communication through shared knowledge [and] collaboration among people at work and at home"?

A: The balance does not have to be defined. In a balance, when commercial traffic goes up, collaborative traffic goes down. This is not the case; they are not competing.

In fact, there is a huge commercial value in collaboration. The company which learns to use the Web to work together better may be the company that survives.

This is true externally as well as internally. When a salesperson finds a deal with a buyer, they are working together to find a good solution to a problem.

Q: But a lot of users are likely to think of the Web more as an extension of their television or radio - a place to buy and sell. And with the rage over Internet start-up stocks, talk about shifting paradigms has dissolved into stock speculation. What are your thoughts about how we can continue to achieve new levels of connectedness and collaboration without eschewing the commercial aspects of the Web?

A: The stock speculation is the market-visible sign of the paradigm shift in society and corporate structure, which the Web allows. Depending on who you are, you may talk only about that surface phenomenon, the excitement meter of Wall Street, or you may be more interested in the change underneath.

When asked to define the Web site, hopefully the CIO will know that this is going to be a job of defining the company. It will involve internal staff areas, areas for working with partners and external public areas, all interlinked. I used to hope that the Web would become an accurate mirror of an organisation; now I realise that it is, in fact, becoming the organisation, as more and more of the interactions which define a company actually happen in the Web.

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