Innovation Monitor: TIm Berners-Lee and the invention of the World Wide Web

Innovation Monitor: TIm Berners-Lee and the invention of the World Wide Web

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Welcome to this week’s Innovation Monitor.

Did you know the history of The Internet is linked to particle physics? No, not in terms of quantum computing, or in another meta way. Specifically, Geneva’s European Particle Physics Laboratory, CERN, where 41 years ago in 1980, a 25-year-old Tim Berners-Lee arrived to update the control systems for some of the lab’s particle accelerators.

But there was a problem. “The big challenge for contract programmers was to try to understand the systems, both human and computer, that ran this fantastic playground,” Berners-Lee wrote. At the time, most of the vital information existed in people’s heads and exchanged via email. So Berners-Lee wrote up a little note program called Enquire that linked to other notes and ran on CERN’s OS. However, few people saw it, and the original disk was eventually lost.

Berners-Lee would return over a decade later with a much grander concept years later. In 1991, he published an explanation of the WorldWideWeb project:

“The WWW project was started to allow high energy physicists to share data, news, and documentation. We are very interested in spreading the web to other areas, and having gateway servers for other data. Collaborators welcome!”

And thus began the early days of the internet. This week we are going to dig into the history of the World Wide Web and a graphical internet, as well as Berners-Lee’s historic decision to make the WWW a public domain. That question of open vs. closed is an eternal one in the evolution of the internet and we hope this edition gives you some perspective on one of the earliest applications of that question.

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Erica Matsumoto The Early Days In 1990, Berners-Lee publicly introduced the WorldWideWeb browser (image below), which only ran on the NeXTStep OS. His idea was to create a “web-like system of management, tied together by a series of what he called hyperlinks,” writes Popular Mechanics. (Fun side note: the web’s first site was published in August, 1991.)

In Adam Fisher’s brilliant oral history of Silicon Valley, Valley of Genius, author Steven Johnson describes the pains of getting on the web at the time:

Then came Erwise in 1992, written by four Finnish college students. In a review of the browser, Berners-Lee highlighted some of the features, like underlined links and double-clicks to jump to a new page. Erwise never took off — and neither did ViolaWWW, which was written around the time, despite cool innovations like the ability to embed scripts in pages.

Then, came Mosaic. “What’s a browser?” 1993 was a seminal year in internet history. On April 30, 1993, CERN released the WorldWideWeb project into the public domain.

Before 1993, you didn’t have much options for accessing the world’s information. Browsers were mainly used by academics, and were barely accessible by the general public.

Then came along Mosaic, and with it, Marc Andreessen. Around the time, a young Andreessen was assisting computer graphics pioneer Ping Fu (who had worked on Terminator 2’s morphing effects) at the National Center for Supercomputing Applications.

Fu suggested Adreessen write a GUI for a browser. “What’s a browser?” he asked. So Fu showed him ViolaWWW and another browser called Midas.

Andreessen was enthralled. With help from Unix expert Eric Bina, Andreessen created the Mosaic browser. Unlike previous efforts, Mosaic was feature-packed and seamless, supporting graphics, sound, and video clips:

Andreessen was also obsessive about support: “What I think Marc did really well is make it very easy to install, and he supported it by fixing bugs via e-mail any time night or day. You’d send him a bug report and then two hours later he’d mail you a fix,” wrote Berners-Lee.

The next year, Andreessen founded Netscape with Silicon Graphics founder James Clark, releasing the successful Netscape Navigator — the “first browser for the people” as Mozilla puts it.

This caps us off at the start of the modern internet era. In 2003, Berners-Lee made an anniversary video celebrating the openness of the web.

And in a 2007 interview, he again stressed the reason the web grew as large as it did was due to its openness:

But the web, as we’ve seen, kept steering towards the commercial. Actually, it’s been pushing in that direction ever since Netscape became the first successful internet company. Nearly two decades later, Berners-Lee is back with a proposed fix. The Fix Like fellow tech pioneer Jaron Lanier, Berners-Lee now sees the optimistic promise of the early internet — giving power to the people — shattered by Big Tech “silos”. These silos have become “surveillance platforms and gatekeepers of innovation,” taking power away from individuals.

Now Berners-Lee is working on Solid, an open-source web standard that allows users to control their data, at his company Inrupt, which makes server software that uses Solid for enterprises and government agencies.

Inrupt already has a few pilots in the works. For example, the company teamed up with the NHS for the care of dementia patients: “Each patient has a Solid [personal online data store] with an ‘All About Me’ form with information submitted by the patient or an authorized relative, supplementing the person’s electronic health record.”

As the NY Times writes:

This Week in the Future

This newsletter has covered OpenAI’s GPT-3, the advanced neural network that has rapidly pushed forward text generation capabilities. We are starting to see more tools bringing GPT-3’s power to everyday usage. These mostly still exist in the space of marketing copy or very specific growth-oriented copy requirements, but some tools are Copy.ai, Copysmith.ai, and Conversion.ai. To get a better sense of how these work, check out a recent edition of the Wonder Tools newsletter, written by Newmark School of Journalism Professor Jeremy Caplan.





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