Web celebrates one of its 20th birthdays
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."
| November 12, 2010; 12:23 PM ET
Categories: Policy and politics, The Web
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