We tend to take for granted all that is done without much fanfare behind the scenes, yet without which we could not enjoy the benefits of advancing technology and society. The creation of computing standards is a perfect example. Tim Berners-Lee, at the World Wide Web Consortium Tenth Anniversary meeting this month, said he considers creating standards a nasty, brutish process, often exacerbated by the emotions of the people involved. The technology is easy by comparison.
Linus Torvalds, in an interview in eWEEK last month, spoke about possible work to revise the GNU General Public License: "My biggest concern is that licenses are something ... personal to developers, and even trivial modifications to the GPL will cause endless debates and that can easily derail any attempts to improve it."
Despite these struggles, the Web, for all its flaws and bottlenecks and viruses and spam, is one of the crowning achievements of the last 50 years.
Thats not just me talking; that was the consensus of the assembled luminaries at W3C10, celebrating the achievements of one of the Webs most influential standards-making bodies and offering a great opportunity to look back and see what Berners-Lee first wrought from the Hypertext Transport Protocol.
From his mind came the means by which information of all kinds can be shared on a global basis. The Web truly did change the world in the way that radio and television did. Just as I grew up in a world in which I could not imagine no TV, todays generation is growing up with the same feeling about the Internet.
Whenever he is asked to explain his feelings about this accomplishment, Berners-Lee is almost shockingly modest. Hes never made a dime off his invention—although he is director of the W3C and won a MacArthur Foundation award in 1998—and he certainly does not own any part of the Web. He also seems uncomfortable talking about the Webs success—especially since he sees that there is so much more to be done.
I interviewed Berners-Lee in 1998. At that time, he talked about the ongoing transition from Phase 1 of the Web—people talking to other people—to Phase 2—the more intelligent Web of Web services and service-oriented architectures. "Phase 2 is about machine-readable formats that let machines collaborate on the Web with no human intervention," he said at the time.
Berners-Lees latest project—the Semantic Web—could be considered Phase 3. The Semantic Web is all about data, structured and unstructured, and how to use the Web to get at it. Not just some data, but all of it. If the first Web was a communications tool for the masses, the Semantic Web is a tool the masses will never know they are using.
The Semantic Web depends on vendors and developers supporting and using the two main W3C standards, the RDF (Resource Description Framework), which integrates applications with XML, and OWL (Web Ontology Language), which creates, in W3C terminology, "information networks." Weve seen the first glimmerings of what can be done with RSS, which is related to RDF.
What we can see on the Web, or as the Web, represents a fraction of available data. Most of the data that could be put on the Web cant be because of language or formatting restrictions or because its stuck in a database.
The Semantic Web could change that, but will the change be as monumental as that wrought by the first Web? It depends on developers to implement the standards, which, for the most part, theyve done so far.
As for the impact, the Semantic Web will make what we have more useful, and that has been Berners-Lees mandate all along: "Its all about the people, not the technology," he said at W3C10.
"We made the Web to use the Web, to get other people to use the Web and to get things done," Berners-Lee said. "We are going into a new area ... that could change the rules of Web and enable us to do all that we on this planet can accomplish."
Scot Petersens e-mail address is firstname.lastname@example.org.