Saturday, October 24, 2009

Sir Tim Berners-Lee and Tim O'Reilly

Sir Tim Berners-Lee closed out the Web 2.0 Summit with an amazing discussion with Tim O'Reilly. During this discussion, the inventor of the World Wide Web spelled out his thoughts on how his creation has developed and the dangers it faces. The decision to keep the Web open had a simple explanation: "Otherwise, it would not have worked."

Considering his background as a strong advocate of an open Web through his efforts in his World Wide Web Foundation and leadership of the W3C Web standards group, it is no surprise that he sees adanger as a lack of openness. "Basically, I'm always worried about anything large or someone coming in to control it... a company or a large government," Berners-Lee said. "Whenever there's a play to make a stranglehold, that's a bad thing." If the Web were less open, users might be forced to sort through multiple data sources of unconnected content to find information. "If you had to put things in SGML or Word format or something else ... you constrain it," he said.

He also gave an endorsement of basic Gov 2.0 principles and said he's pushing for more open access to public-sector data. "The U.S. government has been very positive about putting more data out there," he said, and there seems to be agreement on both sides of the aisle that this would be a positive thing to do.

Another challenge for the Web is not just avoiding closed systems, but expanding access. "Only 20 to 25 percent of humanity use the Web at all," he said. "Maybe 80 percent live in a place where there's a signal, but you can't get the Ethiopians the signals they need," he said. "So it's not only access, but that (web sites) are designed appropriately for other cultures."

Berners-Lee also discussed some of the design decisions that made the Web what it is today. In particular, O'Reilly brought up the "404 error" that could be one of the reasons for the Web's success, and noted that the fact that links can break safely has been a key to its scalability. Berners-Lee agreed, adding that although it might be frustrating to see that a Web site can't be found, the 404 error was an important inclusion in the World Wide Web's design. "The link is either there or not there, so you have to make sure the system is consistent," he said.

I was surprised to hear that Berners-Lee has some reservations about cloud computing. He agreed that there is an inevitable drive to have more Web-based applications, he added that the idea can't be readily applied to all uses. "Whenever I do anything financial, I like to do it with software that's installed on my machine," Berners-Lee said. "I want to be able to install stuff."

"One of the gating factors of Web apps taking off is trust. How do we determine, when software is taking data from here, here, and here, that we can trust it? There are cross-scripting threats and a lot more design that needs to be done."

He did acknowledge that the idea can't be ruled out entirely. "If we get a solution to these problems, Web apps will be amazing because you'll be able to mix applications and all the data that's out there," he said.

This is a masterclass discussion between two great pioneers: