OK – so, who has been the most influential figure in the development of the internet, the World Wide Web and the way the 21st century communicates?
Eerrr…. Bill Gates? Well, hasn’t he really just developed computer programmes?
Steve Jobs? Well, Apple is now the biggest company in the world and, without an ‘i-something-or-other’ it seems hard to communicate at all, so maybe he is.
Or what about the guy who thought up Facebook – Mark Zuckerberg? He was the one who made social networking possible. It must be one of those. You can’t have got that rich without having been a pretty mega influence somewhere along the line!
They and their millions are all as nought compared to an unassuming English scientist who has never shown any desire to become ridiculously rich and whose name, although widely recognised and respected in scientific circles, means precisely nothing to 99.999% of web users – Tim (now Sir Tim) Berners-Smith. Twenty years ago this month (and how can it possibly only be 20 years ago?) Sir Tim devised a way for individual computers to talk to each other, thereby creating the massive inter-communication system that we now know as the World Wide Web.
Fascinated by mind-boggling changes that his invention spawned (we certainly would not be doing what we are today without it and nor would many, many millions of others around the globe) I used his invention to find out more about him.
An excellent article in Time magazine in 1999 explained exactly what, as a young software engineer doing a six month project at the CERN laboratory in Geneva, he devised. Frustrated by the difficulties of sharing information with colleagues (although a network of communication, the internet, had already been developed by both universities and governments, most computers could not ‘speak to each other’ as they all used different programmes and protocols) he came up with the idea of devising an internet language that all could use.
‘…he cobbled together a relatively easy-to-learn coding system – HTML (HyperText Mark-up Language) – that has come to be the lingua franca of the Web…. He designed an addressing scheme that gave each Web page a unique location, or url (universal resource locator)…. and a set of rules (HTTP or HyperText Transfer Protocol) that enables requests and file documents to be linked together on computers across the Internet. Then finally, he designed a browser which would allow users anywhere to view his creation on their computer screen.’
At the latest count this week (August 2011) there were 19.68 billion pages out there on the web, just waiting for us to access them – that is more than three times the world’s population! Is that a result – or is that a result!
And what of Sir Tim? Although he has always refused to profit from his invention in the conventional way he has, and does, remain intimately connected with it. In October 1994, he founded, and continues active in the World Wide Web Consortium (W3C) which oversees the web’s continued development:
‘ ….one of W3C’s primary goals is to make human communication, commerce, and opportunities available to all people, whatever their hardware, software, network infrastructure, native language, culture, geographical location, or physical or mental ability….’
He is also an ardent supporter of Net Neutrality, a principle which advocates no restrictions by Internet service providers or governments on consumers’ access to any network that participates in the internet.
Much of his current research is focused on what is referred to as the ‘semantic web’ or enabling enabling computers to ‘read’ data more ‘intelligently’ and thereby be able to perform more tasks on behalf of their users.
However, if you want to understand his views in more depths read his long and fascinating article in The Scientific American in November last year.
Meanwhile, I will go back to trying to get my head around the fact that a mere 20 years ago the idea of a website was the stuff of university geeks and computer nerds in anoraks – yet today a farmer in a remote corner of rural India can access the information not only from hour to hour but from minute to minute, via his mobile phone, on anything from his local weather conditions to share prices on the other side of the world….