Tim Berners-Lee, Geek of the Week

We interview Simple-Talk's Geek of the Week, Sir Timothy John Berners-Lee OM KBE FRS FREng FRSA. , ranked first in The Telegraph's list of 100 greatest living geniuses, and director of the World Wide Web Consortium. What has he achieved? He invented the World Wide Web, Browsers and Web Servers. You could reasonably argue that he invented Wikis and Blogs too. And he's still inventing things.

The Internet has many fathers: Vint Cerf and Robert Kahn, who came up with a system to let different computer networks interconnect and communicate; Ray Tomlinson, the creator of e-mail and the ‘@’ symbol; Ted Nelson, who coined the term hypertext; and scores of others. But the web itself? Well, that has one father only, Sir Tim Berners-Lee. He is worshipped as a rarity of his breed – a computer scientist driven by moral and political idealism, uninterested in the vast material reward that his invention could have brought him.

He might have been another entrepreneur like Bill Gates (on whom he will not be drawn). Instead he chose not to patent his creation, determined that it would be free for all.

Perhaps this modesty – he once described himself as ‘over-honoured’ – stems from his remarkably sensible childhood. He was one of four children born to Conway Berners-Lee and Mary Lee Woods, who were both computer mathematicians in the team that built the Manchester Mark I, the first ever electronic stored-program computer. He was raised in a family atmosphere of contented geekiness, in the leafy suburbs of East Sheen, southwest London.

His parents’ enthusiasm obviously rubbed off. The young Berners-Lee occupied himself by building computers out of cardboard. It was, by all accounts, a comfortable and happy upbringing, leading smoothly to an Oxford degree and life on the research circuit. He is married with two children and comes across as being thoroughly grounded, without pretension. He is a prominent member of the Unitarian movement, a dissenting church that grew out of the Reformation and denies the divinity of Jesus Christ.

In 1980, Berners-Lee proposed a project to CERN, based on the novel idea of hypertext, to help researchers to share information. He built a prototype system named ENQUIRE. Four years later he became a fellow at CERN and by 1989, CERN was the largest Internet node in Europe. Berners-Lee then had the inspiration to take the hypertext idea developed in ESQUIRE and connect it to the Transmission Control Protocol and domain name system ideas, and so created the World Wide Web. He wrote his initial proposal in March 1989 and, in 1990, with the help of Robert Cailliau, produced a practical working version on the NeXTSTEP platform, with the first web browser, and the first Web server, called httpd (HyperText Transfer Protocol daemon).

Tim’s browser was highly advanced, and included an editor. It envisaged a web that included what we now think of as Wikis and Blogs, so he really should be credited as the inventor of these too. Even now, browsers have not entirely caught up with this ambitious prototype.

The first Web site, developed by Berners-Lee, was constructed in August 1991 to provide an explanation about the World Wide Web, Web Servers and browsers. It gave instructions on how to set up a Web server.

Tim then went on to found the World Wide Web Consortium (W3C) at MIT in 1994. Tim made his idea available freely, with no patent or royalties. In the same spirit, the World Wide Web Consortium decided that their standards must be put in the public domain, so that they could be easily adopted by anyone.

Tim continues to working to refine the World Wide Web still further. He has reluctantly accepted a role as arbiter and seer, despite being far more relaxed and excited when talking about the technology than when he is being fêted as ‘the father of the web’.

In 2007 Berners-Lee was named by Time magazine as one of the 100 most important people of the past century and, amongst his other posts, is the Director of the World Wide Web Consortium, Senior Researcher at MITs Laboratory for Computer Science and Artificial Intelligence (CSAIL), where he leads the Decentralised Information Group (DIG), and is Professor of Computer Science at the University of Southampton’s Electronics and Computer Science Centre.


“The Semantic Web has been in the news quite a bit recently. Yahoo for example announced that it will pick up Semantic information from the Web, and use it to enhance searches. I also read in several blogs that you think Google may eventually be displaced by a company that ‘harnesses the power of next-generation web technology,’

What did you mean by that?”


“It’s all a misunderstanding. In fact, the conversation, as I recall, started with a question along the lines that if search engines were the killer app for the familiar Web of documents, what will be the killer app for the Semantic Web.

Text search engines are, of course, good for searching the text in documents, but the Semantic Web isn’t text documents, it is data. It isn’t obvious what the killer apps will be – there are many contenders. We know that the sort of query you do on data is different.

The SPARQL [an RDF query language] defines a query protocol which allows application builders to query remote data stores. So that is one sort of query on data which is different from text search.

One thing to always remember is that the Web of the future will have both documents and data. The Semantic Web will not supersede the current Web. They will coexist. The techniques for searching and surfing the different aspects will be different but will connect. Text search engines don’t have to go out of fashion.

The ‘Google will be superseded’ quote is an unfortunate misunderstanding. I didn’t say it.”


“Do you get annoyed when journalists misquote you?”


“No. It’s a fact of life. I accept it – it often happens when you launch something new. People ask what the opportunities are and what the dangers are for the future. And some editors are tempted to just edit out the opportunities and headline the fears to get the eyeballs, which is old and boring newspaper practice.

In fact, it is a really positive time for the web. Startups are launching and being sold again, academics are excited about new systems and ideas, conferences and camps and wikis and chat channels are hopping with energy, and every morning demands an excruciating choice of which exciting link to follow first.

And, fortunately, we have blogs. We can publish what we actually think, even when misreported.”


“You have to admire Google. They’ve developed an extremely effective way of searching for pages on the internet. How do you see this improving?”


“It will pale in comparison to what can be achieved on the Semantic Web. It will allow any piece of information – such as a photo or a bank statement – to be linked to any other. You will be able to build applications that are much more powerful than anything on the regular web.

Imagine if two completely separate things – your bank statements and your calendar – spoke the same language and could share information with one another. You could drag one on top of the other and a whole bunch of dots would appear showing you when you spent your money.

“If you still weren’t sure of where you were when you made a particular transaction, you could then drag your photo album on top of the calendar, and be reminded that you used your credit card at the same time you were taking pictures of your kids at a theme park. So you would know not to claim it as a tax deduction.

It’s about creating a seamless web of all the data in your life.”


“There’s been a lot of talk lately about more women entering the IT industry, but many more are put off by male attitudes. I read that one academic went through a sex change, submitted the same papers under both identities, and found that papers were accepted from a man but were rejected when they came from a woman. Do you think that the bias against women is getting worse?”


“A culture which avoids alienating women would attract more female programmers, which could lead to greater harmony of systems design.

If there were more women involved we could move towards interoperability. We have to change at every level.

Engineering research facilities that interview candidates based only on how many papers they have had published also risk adding to the problem.

It’s a complex problem – we also find bias against women by women. There are bits of male geek culture and engineer culture that are stupid. They should realise that they could be alienating people who are smarter and better engineers.”


“The New York Times quoted you as saying that you were concerned that the web companies are thinking too short term and are simply in it to make money. A few internet companies, such as Yahoo, have created their own research labs, but these are nothing like the tech industry’s ground-breaking labs of the past, such as those run by AT&T, IBM and Xerox.

Why do you think that is?”


“They’ve been taught to look short-term by the dot-com bubble, it has made everyone very conscious of short-term returns on investment, and this has trickled down to research funding.

In general, the attitude a lot of companies have towards research nowadays is that they like to see the product in 18 months – rather than, here are some really big problems, go away and think about them, take some risks, come back with some ideas we don’t believe. In other word, the sort of things that triggered big advances in the past.”


“Tell me a little about the $100m you’re trying to raise. What’s it for?”


“The $100m is for a joint research initiative launched a year ago by the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, where I teach, and the University of Southampton.

Research on the future of the web needs to draw on experts from a mix of backgrounds, including technologists, economists, psychologists and sociologists. What is lacking are the people who could be really rethinking a new form of web interaction, a new way of organising society, something to replace the existing forms of democracy.

The analysis needed to back long-term thinking and also requires a very large amount of computing power and a very large amount of mathematics.”


“$100m would have been small change if only you’d patented the world wide web? Do you regret not doing it?”


“No I don’t. It was simply that had the technology been proprietary, and in my total control, it would probably not have taken off. It’s as simple as that. The decision to make the Web an open system was absolutely necessary for it to be universal. You can’t propose that something be a universal space and at the same time keep control of it.”


“Solving the security risks associated with large databases of information that are attractive to criminals and identity fraudsters is a necessary pain – are there are better ways of meeting this challenge?”


“There are definitely better ways of managing that threat. I think we’re soon going to see a new tipping point where different types of crimes become possible and lucrative, and it’s something we constantly have to be aware of.

One option is to build systems which more effectively track what information you’ve used to perform a particular task, and make sure people aren’t using their authority to do things that they shouldn’t be doing”


“OK. Quick questions because we only have a minute or so remaining. What’s the next big project?”


“WC3 is starting a Web Foundation. We have a responsibility to improve the web, safeguard it, and offer it to others.

One of the key goals of the foundation will be to extend Web access to more of the 80% of humanity that’s still unserved by the Web.

The hope is to double its population. This would include making the Web accessible to hundreds of millions of the world’s poor. Much of the access will be through cell phones. It requires research on people’s needs and creation of common standards.”


“Thanks for your time, Tim.”