Reactions to "Weaving the Web"

Chapters 1-4: Early History

Barbara Chu

The web is one thing that we take for granted; we use it to death without thinking twice. We take advantage of the fact that we have this technology without thinking about its complexity. The web connects millions of computers for the purpose of sharing information. Whose idea was this? How did he/she/they come about making the idea into reality? How do computers with different operating systems and different base languages communicate in order to share the information they have stored? After reading chapters one through four of Weaving the Web, by Tim Berners-Lee, I feel I can answer these questions fully whereas before I would only have been able to answer one.

The web was Tim Berners-Lee's baby; an idea in his mind, transferred to paper, and brought to reality. Tim Berners-Lee was born into the right family for the job. His parents were mathematicians and programmers of the first commercial stored-program computer, the Mark I stored in Manchester University. Enquire, short for Enquire within upon everything, was the name of his first idea of linking information. He used it to store information on physicists employed by CERN, the company he was now working for. CERN is a famous particle physics laboratory in Geneva where Burners-Lee took a brief consultation job. He got the idea for the name from a book his parents had which had tips for doing everything from removing clothing stains to tips on investing money. It does not encompass the idea of linking information well, but it does have a wide variety of information useful to just about everyone.

Berners-Lee started out small when trying to implement his idea. First he started by just linking information. At CERN there were thousands of scientists, hundreds at a time at the location. This is an overwhelming amount of people to remember names, facts, and jobs about. Berners-Lee's solution for this was to create a database where he could store this information, link people, and look back to, which was all connected to by a single page. He recycled Doug Englebart's idea of linking information, using what is called hypertext, for his own use. Berners-Lee had a bigger idea though, unlike hypertext he would use external links as well as internal links. His idea was to combine the use of the already existing Internet and hypertext to create what he called the "World Wide Web" (WWW). At that time though, there were a couple of different computers and operating systems that existed, the PC, Unix, Macintosh, and NeXT. These computers all had different operating systems and base languages that they communicated with, Berners-Lee pictured them all communicating together in order to share information. This proved to be a tough task.

Using CERN's resources such as people, computers, the network and the Internet, Berners-Lee attempted to tackle this roadblock. With the help and enthusiasm of Robert Cailliau and interns Nicola Pellow and Jean-François Groff, Berners-Lee solved this problem by creating a universal language that the computers could talk in, and a universal browser for users to view the information. The language the web is programmed in is called Hypertext Markup Language, or HTML for short. It was a spin off of the language already widely used and accepted in CERN called Standard Generalized Markup Language, or SGML. The browser was created by Jean-François and based upon a common point of all computers, ASCII.

Although we have seen the web in action, and we all wish we had come up with the idea, Berners-Lee had very little support in the beginning when the World Wide Web was just an idea. He had a lot of critics asking why he would want to create something like this and not understanding his idea. After he had his bumps smoothed out, his ideas organized, and increased exposure, he had a large amount of fans encouraging him.

It's amazing even just coming up with the concept that he had, let alone making it a reality. It must have been so frustrating to him knowing he's working on something so big, and to have so little support, especially in his workplace. Had it have been me, I would have gotten so frustrated with the disinterest of people that I might have given up on the idea or passed the headache on to someone else. Also, I find it so amazing that he was able to get machines with different operating systems to communicate. It will be amazing to see where this takes us, and what other advances are soon to come.

Emily de Ayora

I thought that the first four chapters of Weaving The Web were very interesting. After eight or so years of the internet, the world wide web, and email being a major part of my life, the origins of it are in some ways surprising.

The web itself is so amazing because, unlike other inventions such as the television or telephone, the web encompasses a huge amount of information, and can be used in many different ways, and for many different purposes. Also, though the television connects people to information, and the telephone connects people to each other, the web can do both of these things, and can do it better. The web has the potential not only to perform the actions of these other inventions better, but in my prediction will eventually replace them. People are already watching made-for-web "TV" shows, and using peer-to-peer technology to talk to friends and family over the web. People also use the web to listen to the radio, check the weather, track routes to locations, manage their schedules, and to do many of the things that have traditionally been done by many different devices. The web has the potential a vital source or information and organization for everyone who has access to it.

In many ways, I think that the web might have developed more quickly in an environment other than CERN. It seems from the reading that Berners-Lee was kept from advancing the web at a faster pace from many obstacles, including the environment at CERN. He was constantly struggling to keep interns who would become immersed in his project for a few months, and then would be forced to leave because of CERN's strict rules. Also, because CERN was primarily a place to study physics, it was not the best environment in which to develop something like the web, where the ultimate goal was for everyone to use the invention, not just a particular scientific community. As Berners-Lee says at one point, creating something only useable at CERN would cause a great idea to be really limited in its scope. Had Berners-Lee been at a University maybe, or another institute with a focus more on technology instead of physical science, I think that he might have been more productive in a shorter amount of time.

The most interesting aspect of the web's development for me is how it grew from this small, limited, and difficult to implement idea into something that has literally taken over the world. People take it for granted now, and use it without understanding how it works. I suppose this is the way all really great inventions go --- for the general public they turn into magic, something that just happens because it always has. But after reading these few chapters, one begins to realize that the creation of this web was emotionally, physically, and manually intensive. Everything from long hours programming to the use of a soldering iron, went into the creation of what we now know as the world wide web. It is really an amazing feet, and Berners-Lee's perseverance shows that though truly great inventions may take time to come about, once they do they can change the way people live forever.

Nick Dreves

I think that the first comment that I have to make about the first few chapters of Tim Berners-Lee's book, Weaving the Web, is that it is incredibly informative and thorough. I have to be honest in saying that I am by no means fluent in computer jargon, so I am still trying to piece together the really technical aspects of the history of the Web. However, I do have a general understanding of it, and the rest will come with time.

I think that the web probably would not exist in the way or scope that it is today, without having been invented in an environment like that at CERN. The fact that it was developed in such an academically oriented atmosphere, comprised of such an international group of incredibly smart and innovative people really allowed the Web to truly become global. Because academics are always traveling all over the world, yet doing their best to keep in touch with their colleagues, the Web created the best forum for them to all keep in touch, and share, access, and present information, without having to worry about any limitations (except the storage space of their own computers) as to how much they could present. I think that if it had been developed in some corporate research lab, the "Web" might have come into existence, but in a much different of a form. First off, anything coming from some sort of corporate entity would have the ultimate goal of creating profit. Berners-Lee had in mind something that wasn't profit-oriented and that anybody could use and access for free any information that was available on the Web. Some Web-like product, I imagine, wouldn't have the same elements as that of Berners-Lee, with the most important one being, in my opinion, the fact that there is no one specific thing or organization that runs the Web. As Berners-Lee writes, "The Web was not a physical 'thing' that existed in a certain 'place.' It was a 'space' in which information could exist (Berners-Lee 36)." Any "Web" that would/could have been created by some corporate entity as a product would be constrained in what it could truly accomplish (the Web today) by necessary money-making goals. I feel that I am being a little ambiguous here, and I apologize, but I am finding it hard to articulate just exactly what I mean. I hope you understand.

The last thing that I wanted to comment on was the incredible persistence of Tim Berners-Lee. He continued to pursue his idea for years with no real financial backing and managed to create something that has revolutionized the world.

Dan Driscoll

How does the Web differ from other major communications inventions such as the telegraph, the telephone, radio, and television? How do you think the Web rates (or ultimately will turn out to rate) in terms of significance, compared to these other inventions? Why?

The Web differs from other major communications inventions such as radio and television primarily in that anyone can put something up on the Web, while radio and television require licensing agreements which are difficult to obtain and require license holders to pay large fees to regulatory organizations. As a result, anyone, from a large company like Nike to our book's example of a school teacher, can have a website. Website, for the most part, are immune from censors, and hence anything from fanatical views to porn can easily be put up on the web. As far as person-to-person communication is concerned, it is much less expensive to communicate on the web than by telephone (or the now mostly obsolete telegraph). Everything from an online chat (in private through instant messaging or in public in a chat room) to what is amounts to a phone call (instant messaging services offer an easy and basic form of online voice chats, though higher quality forms exist). Hence it is my belief that the Web will consolidate all of these communications forms in the near future, (even television programs can be put up online) and people will have the ability to choose from a much greater variety of communications and media resources.

What were the key ideas or technologies that paved the way for the development of the Web (aside from the obvious development of computers)?

Perhaps the most essential technology in the development of the Web was the telephone, and even now cell phone technology has allowed for greater access to the web. However, a more recent technological breakthrough was the creation of easy-to-learn codes like HTML that have allowed for even non-programmers to create webpages. HTML is especially important because it can be understand by nearly every web browser due to the fact that it is simply a series of encoded traits that each web browser can be programmed to interpret in the best possible way by that particular browser.

What role, if any, do you think the CERN environment played in helping to shape the early development and vision of the Web? How likely do you think it is that the Web could have originated in a less academically-oriented environment, such as a corporate research lab?

Because the CERN environment promoted the advancement of technology in any form or direction, it was much better for the development of the World Wide Web than a corporate lab would be, for corporate labs are more concerned with developing only profitable technology and as a result they are much more cautious and restrictive in what they are willing to research.

What were the key characteristics of the Web's design that led to its phenomenal growth and success?

As mentioned earlier, the World Wide Web was and continues to be so popular because it can be explored by nearly any browser due to the versatility of HTML code (that a standard code such as HTML was accepted also mattered, much in the way that standard CD formats helped the advancement of that medium).

What is the difference between the Web and the Internet?

The Internet is a much larger and broader term/network. The Internet is any form of network computers, and these do not necessarily need to be linked up by standard browsers that are popular today. The Web is a more specific "place"; it is part of the Internet, but there are many other corners of the Internet that look and act nothing like the WWW.

What is the main difference between the popular browsers available today (such as Netscape or Internet Explorer) and Tim Berners-Lee's original Web browser?

Berners-Lee's development was linked only through hypertext, though documents on the Web today can have images, sounds, etc.

What were the principal factors that guided the design of the original HTML language?

HTML needed to be a language that could be displayed across different operating systems and it needed to be simpler and more versatile than SGML.

What aspects of the Web's early history do you find the most interesting or surprising?

Most interesting was the fact that people long-believed that the Internet would not be marketable to the general public, and rather it would be a tool used only be military, academic, and corporate institutions within a limited frame.

Elliot Lee

The first reaction I had after completing the "Weaving the Web" reading was one of mild surprise.

With many scientists and inventions before we have all heard the phrase "ahead of their time." Few examples come to mind, (off the top of my head) of situations where the correct and even beneficial advance in technology or knowledge is refused until the people are ready for such a thing; e.g. Geocentric vision of the universe, idea that the world is round, the work of Einstein (I'll assume). So, Mr. Berners-Lee is simply joining the group when he speaks of his troubles getting a fantastic idea such as the World Wide Web passed through the system at Cern. True, as a child of technology, having computers around my entire life, one might not expect that response to such an idea to happen so recently. However, looking at most great advances in history I believe you'll find similar issues.

As an amateur in the use and understanding of computers, I found a-lot of the information shared in "Weaving the Web" clarifying, for computer terms that I knew only vaguely. The distinction between the Internet as a "network of networks" and the World Wide Web as a mesh of links and protocols "riding on top of the Internet" was an eye-opener. The description of the Web as three main points with URI's to locate items, HTTP to coordinate communication, and HTML to provide a consistent language, was also a big discovery for me.

Lastly, the similarity between Tim Berners-Lee's early programming work and that of a writer in the production of great literature is what caused me to leave mildly surprised. It appears he had this vision of a Web-like creation, and even while it may have been clear in his mind, it was not translating in form. And like the novelist, Mr. Berners-Lee produced, and altered, and revised, and reproduced in his quest to accurately communicate his ideas into his work. If my memory serves me, I remember a whole string of school teachers and now English professors advising me to follow the same technique in my writing assignments in order to produce a quality work. I find that similarity encouraging, where techniques I may have learned in other fields might allow me to further understand computer science. I hope my experience in CS 10 continues in such a fashion.