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Rewriting Life

Generation Next on the Web

Improved protocol will aid online services.

The web is a house that was occupied while still being built. And much of the plumbing and wiring was thrown together to meet immediate needs-with little thought to the long term. But if the Web is going to become comfortably habitable, it will need a refurbishing at its core.

Fortunately for all of us who are now living there, just such a replumbing is in the works. The initiative, by a working group of the MIT-based World Wide Web Consortium (W3C) (see “The Web’s Unelected Government”, TR November/December 1998), goes by a daunting set of initials, HTTP-ng. That mouthful translates into the next generation (“ng”) of the hypertext transfer protocol (HTTP). Just like plumbing, HTTP brings and carries away: uploading and retrieving documents, and embedding hyper-links. And while the new protocol won’t directly change the look and feel of the Web for most casual surfers, the behind-the-scenes refinements will create standards to better support the proliferation of new online services for the Internet.

The version of HTTP now in use (1.1) is changed little from the original that was patched together willy-nilly as the Web was constructed during the early 1990s. In the meantime, however, millions of people and companies have moved in and concocted all manner of new services and features for the Web. “There are about 42 different applications using the Web apart from the basic act of fetching a page,” says Bill Janssen of Xerox’s Palo Alto Research Center, a member of the HTTP-ng working group.

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Take, for instance, a rapidly growing phenomenon: online auctions (see “Radio Daze”, TR November/December 1998). The instant notification of bids to all participants requires operations not built into first-generation HTTP. “There are hundreds of ways” to improvise on HTTP to make auctions work, says Janssen, and most online auctioneers try several before settling on one. HTTP-ng would put in place standards that would make it much easier for Web sites to offer such services. Design of a new Web service, says Janssen, “should not require 20 geniuses working for three years.”

A key goal of HTTP-ng is to make the Web more hospitable to automated “agents” that have been developed at MIT and elsewhere to seek out information and conduct transactions on behalf of a human user, says Henrik Frystyk Nielsen, the HTTP-ng activity leader at the W3C. The existing HTTP falls short, he says, partly because it lacks “semantic understanding” of the information on the Web page. A document on the Web may include the names of many people, but provides no clue to indicate which is the author-and searching bogs down as a result. In contrast, HTTP-ng will provide a consistent framework that can be utilized by new software applications that require some machine “knowledge” of a site’s contents. It will be more like an orderly and navigable library.

The new protocol is still being tested. Nielsen says that W3C intends to implement the changes gradually over a period of a couple of years, as part of an effort coordinated with the Internet Engineering Task Force-the group that looks after the underlying technical standards on which the Web runs. Once the kinks are worked out, though, the World Wide Web may finally prove comfortable for long-term occupancy.

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