The modest inventor

"Weaving the Web" holds the promise of a facinating tell-all book about how Tim Berners-Lee created the Web -- but it just doesn't tell all that much.

Published September 15, 1999 4:00PM (EDT)

The inventor of the World Wide Web is not an easy man to get to know.

I discovered that when I went to interview Tim Berners-Lee in 1996 for the now-defunct WebMaster Magazine. After I'd lobbed my first question, he was silent for a very long time.

Then, in his clipped British accent, he asked, "Have you looked at my Frequently Asked Questions? You'd get a lot of points with me as a journalist if you'd actually looked at them first."

His hope -- then and now -- was that a FAQ posted on the Web would render interviews superfluous, insulating him from stupid, redundant or intrusive questions. (One of the questions on his current FAQ, for example, reads, "Can you tell me more about your personal life?" The answer: "No, I can't.")

So why, then, write "Weaving the Web," Berners-Lee's account of how and why he devised the most important new communications medium since television? A central motivation, apparently, was to forever alleviate his frustrations with journalists and members of the public who insist on learning the particulars of the Web's origins.

"This book is written to address all the questions people ask me, whether they meet me in a bookstore or ask me to make a keynote speech at a conference," he explains on his site. "From 'What were you thinking when you invented it?' through 'So what do you think of it now?' to 'Where is this all going to take us?' this is the story."

Given that Berners-Lee isn't exactly a candidate for "The New Hollywood Squares," I found myself wondering exactly who was pestering him in bookstores and at conferences. A friend pointed out, though, that Berners-Lee is the Ricky Martin of techie circles; wherever he goes, he draws a crowd.

"Weaving the Web" seems to be directed at just that crowd. It's a worthwhile if rather disappointing read for those interested in the genesis story of the Web and Berners-Lee's hopes for its future development. It offers more insight into Berners-Lee and the Web's pre-commercial days than anything yet published. But Berners-Lee evinces little joy in writing about himself and his creative process -- he's no Richard Feynman.

As a book, "Weaving the Web" is part history, part manifesto, part autobiography. That unusual amalgam is hinted at by the book's unwieldy subtitle: "The Original Design and Ultimate Destiny of the World Wide Web By Its Inventor." The history section works best, as Berners-Lee has never before told his version of the Web's birth and tenuous toddlerhood. Later sections read like an operating handbook for the World Wide Web Consortium and a highly detailed outline of the new protocols and features Berners-Lee believes the Web needs. This is not, in other words, stuff that a general business reader will lap up.

From the book's start, Berners-Lee is determined not to cast himself as the Web's omnipotent creator. (On his FAQ, he insists that the exact date of his birth in 1955 is "not available" -- worrying, no doubt, that someone would organize an embarrassing global birthday observance.) It's just not his style -- even if Berners-Lee can lay much stronger claim to the Father of the Web title than, say, Vint Cerf can to Father of the Internet, or even Thomas Edison could to Father of the Light Bulb.

Berners-Lee's selflessness contributed, no doubt, to the Web's weed-like dissemination and growth. "As technologists and entrepreneurs were launching or merging companies to exploit the Web, they seemed fixated on one question: 'How can I make the Web mine?'" writes Michael Dertouzos in the book's foreword. (Dertouzos was present at the birth of the Internet, and he is now the director of the Massachusetts Institute of Technology's Lab for Computer Science, where Berners-Lee helps run the World Wide Web Consortium.) "Meanwhile, Tim was asking, 'How can I make the Web yours?'"

But that same selflessness makes much of Berners-Lee's book read as though it had been written by a third party, and not by the inventor himself. (Maybe that co-writer played a bigger part than he's credited with.) We get exactly one paragraph about Berners-Lee's boyhood in London: His parents, both mathematicians, developed the Mark I, the world's first commercial, stored-program computer, at Manchester University. Racing to get past the section on his youth, he mentions that one evening, he came home from high school to find his father "reading books on the brain, looking for clues about how to make a computer intuitive, able to complete connections as the brain did." That gets the teenage Berners-Lee thinking about how "computers could become much more powerful if they could be programmed to link otherwise unconnected information" -- a line of thinking that eventually led to the Web.

There's nothing more, though, about an upbringing that, according to published profiles of Berners-Lee, included math games at the breakfast table and make-believe computers made of cardboard boxes; and there's just one sentence in which the ever-humble author admits to building his first real computer from an old television and a primitive M6800 microprocessor while studying physics at Oxford University. I wasn't expecting a breathy, code-and-tell book from Berners-Lee, but it would've been interesting to learn more about his education and the environment he was raised in. Photos (published elsewhere) from his college days, for example, are intriguing, showing the shaggy-haired Berners-Lee wielding a soldering iron; clearly, the urge to tinker is central to his personality.

After two post-college jobs, Berners-Lee jumped to a "brief software consulting job" at CERN, the European Particle Physics Laboratory in Geneva, Switzerland. (He wound up staying for nearly 14 years.) There, his ideas about linking unconnected information began to mature. The first evidence of that was a program called Enquire, written to help Berners-Lee "remember the connections among the various people, computers, and projects at the lab."

Before long, Berners-Lee began thinking how much more powerful Enquire would be if it contained links to information stored on any computer anywhere. At CERN, researchers used a motley assortment of computer equipment, and Berners-Lee's original proposal for what became the Web envisioned a system that would let the researchers share documents across any of the machines, whether they were PCs, Macs, Unix boxes or even a NeXT workstation, Berners-Lee's platform of choice. Because CERN was such a heterogeneous computing environment, the Web from the start would be friendly to all kinds of different systems.

The proposal was shelved twice; CERN, it seems, was more interested in particle physics than information technology. Berners-Lee was persistent, though, and he eventually got a half-hearted go-ahead. Still, writing the first Web browser and server software was an easier task than convincing anyone at CERN to start using it. It wasn't until Berners-Lee ported the center's phone book to the Web and held a series of seminars introducing researchers and the support staff to the new set of protocols that a handful of people began adopting them. Once he introduced the Web to the alt.hypertext newsgroup, though, it really began to take off.

"I began to get e-mail from people who tried to install the software," Berners-Lee writes. "They would give me bug reports, and 'wouldn't it be nice if ...' reports. And there would be the occasional 'Hey, I've just set up a server, and it's dead cool. Here's the address." With reminiscences like that, you get a sense that it must've been pretty exciting for Berners-Lee to watch his invention catch fire.

Once others got involved in writing browsers and servers and other software for the Web, Berners-Lee began to feel his control slip; the medium was no longer his own personal project. The inventor's early interactions with Mosaic developer (and eventual Netscape co-founder) Marc Andreessen were particularly tense. "[Andreessen] was always talking about Mosaic, often with hardly a mention of the World Wide Web," writes Berners-Lee. "The people at NCSA [the National Center for Supercomputing Applications at the University of Illinois, Urbana-Champaign] were attempting to portray themselves as the center of Web development, and to basically rename the Web as Mosaic. At NCSA, something wasn't 'on the Web,' it was 'on Mosaic.'" Berners-Lee's alarm comes through loud and clear; it's one of the few points in the book where the reader gets the sense that Berners-Lee felt some possessiveness, some personal attachment to the Web.

Ultimately, that pride of authorship paled in comparison to Berners-Lee's desire to make the Web ubiquitous. He successfully crusaded to convince CERN's directors to put the Web protocol into the public domain, without royalties or any strings attached. Then, he left CERN to form the World Wide Web Consortium at MIT and supervise the evolution of those protocols, while trying to ensure that no single company commandeered the Web for its own purposes.

Why didn't Berners-Lee cash in on his invention? That's apparently one of the questions he's asked most frequently, and one that irks him like no other. "What is maddening is the terrible notion that a person's value depends on how important and financially successful they are, and that that is measured in terms of money. That suggests disrespect for the researchers across the globe developing ideas for the next leaps in science and technology," he writes. He does admit, though, that he considered options aside from being the Web's standards czar, like starting a company or joining the research group of an already established firm in the private sector. But, he says, "My primary mission was to make sure that the Web I had created would continue to evolve. There were still many things that could have gone wrong."

Much of the second half of "Weaving the Web" delves into the organizational structure and process intricacies of the W3C, as the World Wide Web Consortium came to be called. It is hardly riveting. But the book retains just enough forward motion, with a time line of important developments. It traces the browser wars, the Web's adoption by consumers and businesses and the government's confusion over how to regulate the new medium. We're also treated to Berners-Lee's opinions on numerous issues, like whether linking can be a violation of copyright and whether search engines should give advertisers preferential placement in a results set (no and no).

The book's treatment of important W3C initiatives like the Platform for Internet Content Selection (which allows for labeling of objectionable content) and Resource Description Framework (an XML-based language that will help bots analyze information across multiple sites) are too detailed for the general reader. Berners-Lee's belief, though, that better systems are needed for establishing a level of trust between two parties in a transaction is something that every Web shopper can relate to.

"Imagine an Oh Yeah? Button on a browser," he writes. "There I am, looking at a fantastic deal that can be mine just for the entry of a credit-card number and the click of a button. I press the Oh Yeah? Button. My browser challenges the server to provide some credentials. Perhaps this is a list of documents with digitally signed endorsements from, say, the company's bank and supplier, with the keys to verify them."

Berners-Lee has an incredibly fertile mind, and those kind of musings are a treat. Like all great inventors, from Archimedes to Philo Farnsworth, he's convinced that any obstacle can be overcome -- just apply brain power and elbow grease. "Weaving the Web" finishes on an optimistic note that seems perfectly in tune with the author's personality: If a grass-roots project like the Web can have such a tremendous impact on commerce and communication, then anything is possible, any problem is soluble.

While it's not terribly powerful as a work of nonfiction, "Weaving the Web" does present a meaningful new model for an inventor in the era of open-source software. Rather than trying to own, license and control the invention -- and ultimately limiting its potential and its breadth of use -- Berners-Lee is the ego-free tinkerer who simply gives the world a bit of software and says: See what you can do with this. The initial germ of the idea doesn't attain its true value until others have created content, written new browsers and servers and enabled commerce, chat, auctions and instant messaging.

Berners-Lee was already well aware of that back in 1996, when I spoke with him in his small Cambridge, Mass., office. After the snippy start, he warmed up and began talking effusively about his long-term vision for the Web. "Hopefully, in a few years' time," he said then, "people will stop talking about the Web as an application, and [instead] they'll be talking about the Web like they talk about air and water. It'll just be something you take for granted. It's information space. And exciting things will be happening within that space."

I would argue we're already there.

By Scott Kirsner

Scott Kirsner is a Boston writer who covers business and technology for Fast Company, Boston Magazine, Wired, and CIO.

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