The World Wide Web is 10 years old, but it is only just beginning to fulfil its potential. At the eighth World Wide Web conference in Toronto in May, James Gillies learned what the next decade might have in store.
“It was a weird conference,” said Ethernet inventor and self-styled technology pundit, Bob Metcalfe, summing up the eighth World Wide Web conference (WWW8). “Imagine,” he continued, “sitting there listening to a senior executive of IBM wearing a tee-shirt and a beard.” Appearances were not deceptive as Big Blue’s vice president for Internet Technology, John Patrick, captured the spirit of the conference. “Power to the people,” he said, would be the driving force behind the computing industry as we enter the new millennium. For if one thing is abundantly clear, it’s that the political geography of information technology has been turned on its head by personal computing and the World Wide Web. “Stand aside, besuited corporate executives”, came the message. Make way for the altruistic geeks: the future belongs to them.
It’s rare to find such an optimistic bunch of people. The pony-tail count may have been way above average and the word “cool” still cool, but WWW8 delegates have their hearts in the right place. They are the ones who have made the Web, motivated only by the fun of playing with computers and the belief that the Web can make the world a better place. Some were concerned at Microsoft’s conference sponsorship. There was grumbling that the delegates’ pack included complementary Microsoft CD-ROMs (for Windows only). “Next year,” one delegate was overheard to say, while tucking into a spring roll and sipping Chardonnay at the evening reception (courtesy of Bill Gates), “Microsoft will have bought the World Wide Web.” However, his fears were not universally held. There is just too much grass-roots stuff going on out there for one company, however powerful, to take over completely.
It may seem from the outside that the information revolution has arrived, but in John Patrick’s view, “we’re right at the beginning”. The Web’s inventor, Tim Berners-Lee, doesn’t even go that far. The Web we’re going to see emerging over the coming decade, he believes, is none other than the one he had running almost 10 years ago on an obscure computer called a Next cube at CERN. “Ask him about control-shift-N,” said one delegate, referring to the combination of key strokes that instructed that early browser/editor to create a new document linked to the one you were already in. That simple manoeuvre encapsulates Berners-Lee’s vision of what the Web should be, “a common space in which we could all interact”, a medium in which we’d all be creators, not just consumers. Expediency prevented that reality from coming sooner as Berners-Lee and his team at CERN concentrated on providing Web services to the particle physics community leaving the stage free for the entrance of Mosaic, a browser with no editing capacity, in 1994.
Even when the passive Web took off, Berners-Lee did not abandon his dream. To most users of the Web the choice of browsers comes down to two: Netscape Navigator and Internet Explorer. However, there’s actually a lot more choice available. Many of the early browsers can still be found, and there are new companies turning out more. The Web consortium (W3C) has produced a browser/editor, called Amaya, that allows the kind of interactive Web use that Berners-Lee envisaged from the start. If you want to see what the Web was meant to be, open Navigator or Explorer for the last time, go to “http://www.w3.org” and click on “Amaya browser/editor”.
Improving the Web
Content that the Web is finally catching up with his original vision, Berners-Lee is now devoting his energies to improving it. The Web’s biggest problem is caused by its success. There’s so much information out there that it’s often hard to find what you want. The answer, according to Berners-Lee, is what he calls the semantic Web. The kind of information on the Web today is understandable to humans but not to computers. If, for example, Berners-Lee wanted to buy a yellow car in Massachusetts and his neighbour wanted to sell a primrose automobile in Boston, how would his search engine know that what he wanted was right on his doorstep? If a current W3C project is successful, some kind of logical schema will tell the search engine that primrose is just a kind of yellow and that automobiles and cars are in fact the same thing.
Reminding delegates that there’s nothing new under the Sun was IBM’s John Patrick who spelled out his vision of how the Internet is poised to change our lives. Top of his list of next big things was instant messaging, which is just around the corner. Curiously familiar to anyone who used BITNET or DECNET in the 1980s, instant messaging is a sort of halfway house between e-mail and the telephone. Patrick demonstrated IBM’s version by typing in “How is the weather in Heidelberg” to a colleague in Germany. Out boomed the mechanical words “Wie ist das Wetter in Heidelberg”, followed, presumably after the Heidelberger had typed “Es ist kalt und regnerisch”, by “It is cold and rainy”. That’s fine if all you want to do is discuss the weather, but IBM’s translation software might have problems with more complex topics. Nevertheless, it served to show what’s coming.
- This article was adapted from text in CERN Courier vol. 39, September 1999, pp26–28