In building the first web browser at Switzerland’s CERN nuclear research lab in the early ’90s, the English-born Berners-Lee designed a system where only the technicians behind the scenes would see addresses. The ordinary web user would only see text and hypertext, jumping from page to page without ever typing on a keyboard.
“On the initial design of the web, you didn’t see the http:// when you were a user. You just read text and you clicked on links,” Berners-Lee tells Wired. “In the original web browser, you had to bring up a special link inspector to see addresses. That’s why I wasn’t worried about http:// being ugly. No one would really see it.”
As the web grew, this particular vision was lost — at least in part. But you’d have to say that the web still exceeded expectations. In 2010, according to the International Telecommunication Union, close to a third of the world’s population was using the web, and after beginning life as a means of merely sharing text, it has evolved into a medium that shares everything from audio to video to entire software applications that in many ways dwarf what you can do on a local machine.
In 2004, Queen Elizabeth knighted Berners-Lee for his role in the creation of the web, and this year, after countless other honors, Sir Tim was part of the inaugural class inducted into the Internet Society’s (ISOC) Internet Hall of Fame, alongside such names as Vint Cerf and Steve Crocker.
Cerf and Crocker are just two names on a long list of Internet founding fathers. The world can’t even agree on when the Internet was created. But the web originated with one man. In March 1989, Tim Berners-Lee submitted a proposal to his boss at CERN for a new kind of “information management” system. His boss called it “vague but interesting,” and over the next few years, with additional help from a man named Robert Cailliau and other CERN researchers, the proposal spawned the Hypertext Transfer Protocol — HTTP, the basis for the world wide web.
Basically, Berners-Lee took the idea of hypertext and applied it to the transfer control protocol (TCP) and domain naming system (DNS) that already underpinned the Internet. At that point, in the late 80s, the hypertext idea was a common one. As Berners-Lee points out, it was already part of CD-ROM interfaces and other technologies. “I just had to take the hypertext idea and connect it to the TCP and DNS ideas and — ta-da! — the World Wide Web,” he once wrote.
The particular choices he made at the time still reverberate. Two years ago, in an interview with The Times of London, Berners-Lee said that in hindsight, he could have left out the two slashes at the beginning of a web address and saved the world “so much hassle.” But in designing an HTTP address, he wasn’t trying to serve the everyman. He was trying to make it as familiar as possible to those already steeped in the particulars of using hardcore computer systems.
“The formats and protocols were designed to look as much like the existing ones as possible,” he explains, saying that HTTP was designed to look like NNTP, or Network News Transfer Protocol, which was used for Internet newsgroups. “The aim was for people who worked with the protocols to look at them and say: ‘Oh, yeah, I see what’s going on here.”
The hypertext markup language (HTML) that defines webpages was meant to look like an existing markup language — a particular type of SGML, Standard Generalized Markup Language — used at CERN. And the double slash at the front each web address came from a file system for a computer workstation called the Apollo/Domain. “The double slashes were there because, on some computer systems, that was already used to mean: ‘We’re going outside the computer now.’ The single slash was for the local file system. The double slash was for the outside.”
But those long web addresses wound up right in front of the end user when researcher outside of CERN began building web browsers, including Marc Andressen, who built the seminal Mosaic browser at the National Center for Supercomputing Applications (NCSA) at the University of Illinois Urbana-Champaign. They put the address bar right there at the top of the page.
So even the basics of the web are a little different than Berners-Lee imagined. And the names of those addresses is different too. Though the world calls them URLs — uniform resource locators — Sir Tim still prefers to call them URIs — for universal resource identifier.
But this is part of the web’s appeal. Berners-Lee didn’t just create that web, he decided that his creation should be “open,” that anyone could use the same technology at no charge. This allowed the web to spread, but it also allowed it to evolve in ways few could have foreseen.
Yes, those arcane URLs — er, URIs — are still there, though Google and others have shortened them in some cases. But in a way, it’s only fitting. In spreading to a third of the world’s population, the web has made us all into techies — of a kind.
Berners-Lee says that as the web spread, he worried that the general public wouldn’t understand the importance not only of keeping the underlying formats and protocols open, but preventing any one entity from controlling the Internet itself. In recent years, however, he’s been pleasantly surprised with how the world has responded to these issues.
Yes, he still has complaints — most notably with the rise of local software applications at the expense of the open web on mobile devices. “If you’re browsing through an iPhone app, you can’t just take a URL and tweet it or email it to your friends,” he says. “When you have a URL, it’s part of the web, part of the discourse of humanity. People can see if they’re good or they’re bad. They can review them, and search engines can find them.”
“If you make a phone app or a tablet app, the data on it is not participating in all of that. You lose something.”
The same goes, he says, for much of the data stored on social networks such as LinkedIn and Facebook, which are designed, in part, to restrict access to information. “They’re silos. Facebook knows what pictures you’re in, but you can’t use that data when you’re on LinkedIn. You can’t share the same photo with your LinkedIn friends and your Facebook family.”
But on the other hand, he believes the world now understands how important it is to ensure that governments and ISPs provide unfettered access to the web. “The major concern is always that some large organization gets to control the net, whether it’s a country or a corporation,” he says. “But over the last few years, the public in general have become much more aware of this issue. I used to feel I was alone in a void saying: ‘You have to make sure no one controls the Internet.’ But not anymore.”
For instance, he says, when a country such as Egypt clamps down on Internet access, the objection is widespread. And much the same happens when an ISP tries to unnecessary block content or traffic. “You now hear the outcry,” he says.
As for those lengthy addresses, he says they’re here to stay. They provide a certain amount of security. “We need them for trust,” he says. “You need to check the domain name to make sure you’re where you want to be.” And, well, those addresses are what make the web the web.
“The URL will be the last thing to change,” he says, “because that’s the thing that ties it all together.”