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Real-life Sci-Fi

If Tim Berners-Lee has a huge influence on the operation of the W3C, it’s an influence earned by his role in the creation of the Web itself. Essentially, what Berners-Lee invented was a scheme for linking a document of any kind stored on any computer connected to the Internet. Dubbed the Universal Resource Locator, or URL, this innovation gave everything on the Internet its own unique address. Type a URL into a special program called a Web browser, and the program would go out to the Internet, fetch the information, and display it on your computer screen. Berners-Lee’s invention of the URL made possible the sci-fi vision of having all the world’s information available at the click of a button.

But CERN’s management saw the Web as a costly distraction, and its inventor soon found himself looking for a new job. Berners-Lee hit the research lab circuit. He spent a month at MIT’s LCS, then another at Xerox’s Palo Alto Research Center. He talked with a few people about starting a company called WebSoft to commercialize the technology, but quickly jettisoned that idea. “If I had tried to capitalize on the Web initially, it probably would not have taken off,” Berners-Lee says. “The Internet community would have dropped the Web like hotcakes.”

In 1992, Berners-Lee, still without a permanent professional home, was attending a conference in England, when on a bus he happened to sit next to MIT professor David Gifford of LCS. Gifford suggested that he e-mail Michael Dertouzos, director of LCS, who for more than a decade had been describing his vision of an “information marketplace”-in which computers conduct business electronically and act as research assistants for their human masters. It was a vision that was remarkably similar to Berners-Lee’s idea of the Web as a worldwide library. The next month, Dertouzos flew to Geneva and met with Berners-Lee. “He was into the gigantic brain thing,” recalls Dertouzos, “building a network to store all the world’s knowledge. He did not quite see the commercial aspects at the time. But one thing was obvious: the intersection of our views.”

Another thing was obvious as well: MIT, which already had experience in the consortium business, could become Berners-Lee’s new base of operations. For nearly a decade MIT had been the home of an academic/industry partnership called the X Consortium. The X Consortium had taken the X Window System, created at MIT’s Project Athena in the 1980s, and shepherded the program’s development as a core technology for Unix workstations. MIT held the copyright for the system and made the technology available to all, free of charge. Dertouzos suggested to Berners-Lee that MIT could do the same thing with CERN’s Web technology.

Berners-Lee convinced Dertouzos that the Web was too big for the consortium to be solely an MIT project. Instead, MIT would jointly host the World Wide Web Consortium with CERN. The consortium would be funded the way the X Consortium had been: Companies would pay a membership fee to get early access to the consortium’s technology and have the right to help direct its development. The consortium set up shop in October 1994. Two months later, CERN backed out and handed the Web’s European mantle to INRIA (the French National Institute for Research in Computer Science and Control). Jean-Francois Abramatic, W3C’s chairman, who is based at INRIA, explains the switch: “CERN is a Nobel Prize maker, and there is no Nobel Prize in computer science.”

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