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A New Vision From the Inventor of the World Wide Web: An Interview With Tim Berners-Lee

by Andrew Updegrove  |  
August 2, 2005
  |  16,451 views

Obviously, one of the great technical innovations of our time is the World Wide Web, invented by Tim Berners-Lee. Here, he speaks about the launch of the next generation of his creation: the Semantic Web.

What is the Semantic Web? Perhaps the best way to understand the concept is to contrast it to the current Web, which is set up to help you find documents that may (or may not) have the information you want. The Semantic Web, on the other hand, would catalogue important data to indicate the type of information that data represents—places, things, people—thus enabling a new dimension of archiving and search. The Semantic Web can therefore be thought of as a "smarter," more useful resource.

The World Wide Web Consortium (W3C), founded and led by Berners-Lee, has taken the lead in developing the necessary standards to make the next generation of the Web possible. W3C has been instrumental in the development of the core infrastructure of the current Web, which has grown significantly from the original Berners-Lee specifications for URIs [Uniform Resource Identifier], HTTP and HTML.

Recently, the W3C completed work on the standards that will enable the Semantic Web to come into existence: the Resource Description Framework (RDF) and the Web Ontology Language (OWL). Links to these and other Semantic Web Recommendations (as W3C refers to its standards) and materials can be found here: http://www.w3.org/2001/sw/ 

Updegrove: Before we get into specifics, what is it like bringing your vision to the world for the second time, now that the Semantic Web is beginning to take hold?


Berners-Lee: Our work in promoting rather than developing the Semantic Web technologies has been like "déjà vu all over again" for me. Fifteen years ago, one of the hardest things to do was not to develop the initial version of HTTP, or to create a browser that was also an editor, or even to get approval for the purchase of the equipment (!). The difficult thing was to convince people that the Web was something they should adopt.

At CERN (the European Laboratory for Particle Physics, in Geneva), the killer app that got us through the technical barriers (operating system, hardware, philosophy) was making the phone book available through the Web. In the outside world, beyond lab settings, what helped the Web breakthrough were two simultaneous developments—that CERN was making the code available to anyone who would like it free of charge or other encumbrance, and that young developers were coming up with browser software, including multiple implementations that supported inline images.

And so with the potential licensing barriers down and the relative ease of setting up a server, things took off. But imagine, if you can, online information systems before the Web, and what it was like to try to explain the whole idea of the Web to people.


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Andrew Updegrove is a partner at Gesmer Updegrove (www.gesmer.com), where he represents technology companies and standard-setting consortia.

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