Computer Science Illuminated, Third Edition


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Chapter 16: The World Wide Web

Tim Berners-Lee

Tim Berners-Lee is the first holder of the 3Com (Computer Communication Compatibility) Chair at the Laboratory for Computer Science at Massachusetts Institute of Technology. The chair is the first at MIT that may be held by a member of the research staff rather than the faculty. Berners-Lee is a researcher, evangelist, and arbiter rather than an academician. He is Director of the World Wide Web Consortium, which coordinates Web development worldwide. The Consortium, with teams at MIT, INRIA in France, and Keio University in Japan, aims to help the Web acheive its full potential, ensuring its stability through rapid evolution and revolutionary transformations of its usage.

How did Tim Berners-Lee arrive at this very important position? He built his first computer while a student at Queen's College, Oxford, in the United Kingdom. After graduation, he worked for two years with Plessey Telecommunications Ltd, a major Telecom equipment manufacturer in the United Kingdom; he then worked as an independent consultant for a year and a half, and worked for three years at Image Computer Systems Ltd. His various projects during this time included real-time control firmware, graphics and communications software, and a generic macro language.

In 1984, Berners-Lee took up a fellowship at CERN, the European Organization for Nuclear Research in Geneva, where he worked on a heterogeneous remote procedure call system and a distributed realtime system for scientific data acquisition and system control. In 1989, he proposed a global hypertext project to be known as the World Wide Web. It was designed to allow people to work together by combining their knowledge in a Web of hypertext documents. He wrote the first World Wide Web server, "httpd," and the first client, "World Wide Web," a what-you-see-is-what-you-get hypertext browser/editor. The work began in October of 1990, and the program "World Wide Web" was made available within CERN in December and on the Internet at large in the summer of 1991. Between 1991 and 1993, Berners-Lee continued working on the design of the Web, coordinating feedback from users across the Internet. His initial specifications of URLs, HTTP, and HTML were refined and discussed in larger circles as the Web technology spread. Eventually, it became apparent that the physics lab in Geneva was not the appropriate place for the task of developing and monitoring the Web. In October 1994, the World Wide Web Consortium was founded by Berners-Lee at the MIT Laboratory for Computer Science.

In a New York Times article in 1995, Berners-Lee was asked about private corporations trying to dominate Web standards for profit. He responded, "There's always the threat that a particular company would dominate the market and control the standards of the Web." But he feels strongly that this should not happen. "The essence of the Web is that it's a universe of information," he said. "And it wouldn't be universal if it was tied, in any way, to one company."

Michael Dertouzos, the director of the Computer Science Laboratory at MIT, said that Berners-Lee seems to embody the "libertarian idealism" of the Internet culture. "He has a real commitment to keeping the Web open as a public good, in economic terms," Dertouzos said. "That's his mission." Berners-Lee concludes: "Reasonable competition speeds the pace of innovation. Companies will promote the proprietary aspects of their browsers and applications, and they should. But the navigation of the Web has to be open. If the day comes when you need six browsers on your machine, the World Wide Web will no longer be the World Wide Web."

Berners-Lee was one of Time Magazine's 100 most important people in the 20th century. In recognition of his work on the World Wide Web, Queen Elizabeth II made Berners-Lee a Knight Commander, Order of the British Empire (KBE). This honor was announced by Buckingham Palace as part of the 2004 New Year's Honors List.

Additional Links

Check out Tim Berners-Lee's web site here. It includes bios, research info and more.

Visit the Tim Berners-Lee web site
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