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Catching the Curl

Internet: A new language changes Web surfing.
September 1, 2001

When the World Wide Web debuted in 1991, Web pages were basic: text only, black on gray. Developers have since added animation, sound, video and interactivity using new programming languages, like Java, and file formats, like RealAudio. To allow Web browsers to handle all these languages and file types, software modules called “plug-ins” have proliferated; there are now more than 140. The result: a Tower of Babel for Web developers. And because the burden of negotiating among all these languages and file formats falls largely to network servers, downloads can slow to a crawl.

Web inventor Tim Berners-Lee and several of his MIT colleagues are reinventing the Web with a new language called Curl. Combined with a single plug-in called Surge, Curl could enable developers to create multifunctional sites using a single language. What’s more, the system moves so-called compiling tasks-turning raw programming language into a form your browser can display-from busy servers to a user’s own computer, taking advantage of underutilized processing power at the surfer’s end. The result could be a tenfold increase in download speed. Curl also allows a browser to download Web pages in smaller pieces, as needed. Put it all together and “We can build a fully interactive Web application [with the same amount of data as] a banner ad,” says Bob Batty, a vice president at Curl Corporation, the company launched to market Curl.

The Cambridge, MA, company was founded in 1998 by a team including Berners-Lee, MIT Laboratory for Computer Science director Michael Dertouzos and MIT computer scientist Stephen Ward. It released the first commercial version of Curl in March, and Web developers are starting to pay attention. Chris Banford, owner of new-media firm bSoftware, is creating “curlBreaker,” a Web magazine for Curl developers. “Curl is what I’ve been waiting for since the beginning of the Web revolution, and what all the other technologies have fallen far short of,” Banford says. David Smith, an Internet analyst at consulting firm Gartner Dataquest, agrees that the technology is sound but has doubts about the company’s plan to charge commercial content providers based on how many people access content created using Curl.

So far, electronics giant Siemens has used Curl to build an intranet for its executives, and BTexact Technologies, the research arm of British Telecommunications, has committed to developing Web applications using the language. Curl Corporation, however, has more work to do to before its system becomes a Web standard; as of midsummer, the language and plug-in were available only for Windows. But with Unix and Macintosh versions under development, the company is driving steadily towards its goal: to deliver one unified technology for building the Web.