Tim Berners-Lee, inventor of the Web, has been awarded a knighthood in the New Year honours list.
Responding to the honour, Sir Tim said it was an acknowledgement that the Net was becoming globally powerful, and not just a passing trend. "By recognising the Web in such a significant way, it also makes clear the responsibility its creators and users share," he said. "Information technology changes the world, and as a result, its practitioners cannot be disconnected from its technical and societal impacts. Rather, we share a responsibility to make this work for the common good, and to take into account the diverse populations it serves."
Sir Tim came up with the idea of what he called global hypertext space while working at the European Particle Physics Laboratory at CERN in 1989. Until then, hypertext was used to mark up documents but contained no notion of linking to documents on other computers. Sir Tim’s innovation was to develop a Universal Document Identifier (UDI), later to become known as a Universal Resource Locator (URL).
The closest thing at the time to what was to become HTTP and HTML was Apple’s Hypercard program -- what former Apple chief executive John Sculley recently called one of Apple's biggest missed opportunities. "We weren't insightful enough to recognise that what we had inside of Hypercard, essentially, was everything that later was developed so successfully by Tim Berners-Lee with HTTP (Hypertext Transfer Protocol) and HTML (Hypertext Markup Language)," said Sculley, but "we could never figure out exactly what it was. We thought it was a prototyping tool. We thought it was a database tool. It was actually used by people as a front-end communications device for TCP/IP to connect the Internet to large Cray computers."
While Apple fumbled, over at CERN the then plain Berners-Lee wrote a program called WorlDwidEweb, a point and click hypertext editor that ran on the NeXT machine -- ironically developed by Apple co-founder Steve Jobs. "This, together with the first Web server, I released to the High Energy Physics community at first, and to the hypertext and NeXT communities in the summer of 1991," wrote Berners-Lee in his short history of the Web, hosted on the pages of the World Web Web Consortium, which he now heads. On that first Web server, Berners-Lee published the specifications of UDIs, HTML and HTTP, to promote wide adoption and discussion.
"The dream behind the Web is of a common information space in which we communicate by sharing information," wrote Berners-Lee. "Its universality is essential: the fact that a hypertext link can point to anything; be it personal, local or global, be it draft or highly polished."
But there was a second part of the dream, too, he said, and this was dependent on the Web being so generally used "that it became a realistic mirror (or in fact the primary embodiment) of the ways in which we work and play and socialise." That was, said Berners-Lee, that once the state of our interactions was online, we could then use computers to help us analyse it, make sense of what we are doing, where we individually fit in, and how we can better work together.
The knighthood is recognition that this dream has been realised.