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Web celebrates one of its 20th birthdays

By Rob Pegoraro

It was 20 years ago today that a computer scientist named Tim Berners-Lee sent around a proposal to some of his colleagues.

Berners-Lee, then a researcher at the Geneva-based European Organization for Nuclear Research (known as CERN for the French initials of its former name), was fleshing out an earlier pitch for a new information service.

His Nov. 12, 1990 memo, titled "WorldWideWeb: Proposal for a HyperText Project," led off with this explanation:

HyperText is a way to link and access information of various kinds as a web of nodes in which the user can browse at will. It provides a single user-interface to large classes of information (reports, notes, data-bases, computer documentation and on-line help).

Sound like anything you've read lately?

In the proposal, Berners-Lee laid out modest staffing and time estimates--four software engineers and one programmer, with three months for the first phase of the project and at least another three for the second--and sketched out where things might go in that second stage of development.

Note two objectives that we still haven't quite nailed down:

The creation of new links and new material by readers. At this stage, authorship becomes universal.
The automatic notification of a reader when new material of interest to him/her has become available. This is essential for news articles, but is very useful for any other material.

Then notice one word that appears nowhere in the document: patent. The genius of the Web was making it open to everybody instead of a profit source for a single company, organization or person. Think about that the next time somebody tells you that innovation can't happen without first protecting every new idea with a thicket of patents.

(Berners-Lee seems to have done well even after forgoing that potential revenue stream; among other accomplishments, he was made a Knight Commander, Order of the British Empire, in 2004.)

Appropriately enough, the Web's gestation period after that memo lasted about nine months--the first Web page went live on Aug. 6, 1991, as heralded in a newsgroup posting by Berners-Lee. So if we're going to have any big 20th-birthday celebration, it's probably best saved for next August. But it's still worth taking a moment today to consider the difference one modest memo made and say "Thanks, Sir Tim."

By Rob Pegoraro  | November 12, 2010; 12:23 PM ET
Categories:  Policy and politics, The Web  
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Well, I'd say that wikis solve #1 and RSS solves #2. They aren't universal but I don't see how they can be because organizations have to have complete and absolute control over what they publish under their own name.

Posted by: slar | November 12, 2010 4:40 PM | Report abuse

Not exactly, slar.

IRL, the Commercial Content Provider expects a fungible commodity in return ($$$). This (the fungible nature) absolves them of the normal bounds of good taste, as it turns out. As any Entertainer will tell you, there are no bad Acts, just lousy Audiences, just as the last buyer of anything always pays too much.

Posted by: gannon_dick | November 13, 2010 7:38 PM | Report abuse

Thanks for bringing this milestone to our attention. You made a great point when you said: "The genius of the Web was making it open to everybody instead of a profit source for a single company, organization or person."

What would the Web look like if it wasn't open? Today, blogging software gives almost anyone the power to become a publisher. Entrepreneurs can share their next big idea on the Web instead of seeking out investors. And the Web is making companies ultra lean, innovative, and productive. I know I couldn't run my business, let alone create and sell my products, without it.

I believe all of this would not have happened if the Web wasn't open. The fact that Tim Berners-Lee gave this concept over to the world to use says something about him as a person. Because I have to think that 99.99 percent of entrepreneurs would have patented the concept and marketed it commercially. Had that happened, the world as we know it would be a very different place.

So as we celebrate the 20th anniversary of his WorldWideWeb memo, I'd like to add another thank you to Berners-Lee for allowing innovation to flow freely on the Web.

Richard Rabins
Alpha Software, Inc.

Posted by: RichardRabins | November 15, 2010 3:03 PM | Report abuse

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