Tim Berners-Lee shares his vision of a collaborative web

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Tim Berners-Lee founded the web in the early 1990s as a tool for collaboration. But this initial vision was sidelined by read-only web browsers better suited for consuming content instead of collaboration

Web2 has since brought us apps, mobile and the cloud. But data and authentication were tightly coupled to the apps for security reasons. As a result, the Web2 era was defined by a few big companies that use our data to lock us into their platforms. 

Now Berners-Lee is working on a new data-sharing standard called Solid that could help deliver on the initial vision, and a company, Inrupt, to help commercialize this vision. He cautions that this new Web 3.0 vision for giving back control of our data differs wildly from current Web3 efforts built on less efficient blockchains. 

Core features of Solid include support for the following:

  1. Global single sign-on. 
  2. Global access control.
  3. Universal API centered around people instead of apps. 

VentureBeat recently talked to Berners-Lee to learn more about his initial idea for the web, recent progress and vision for the future. 

In the beginning, it was the read-write web

Berners-Lee said he knew that the web was going to be significant from the beginning. “I wanted it to be a read-write web immediately,” he said. “I wanted to be able to collaborate with it and do GitHub-like things for my software team at CERN in 1990.”

At the time, there were about 13 theoretical physicists at CERN, while the rest of the team were engineers. Berners-Lee looked for ways to make it easier for teams to work together from different offices.“They had to communicate using the internet, which was only becoming politically correct to use in projects,”  he said.

The first browser-editor was built on a powerful NeXT Workstation. People could make links and add information to websites. The information could flow across the team to create a new equilibrium as knowledge was added, corrected or extended. 

“Everybody in the team is in an equilibrium knowledge-wise, where this bit of web represents all of the work they have done,” he said.

Sidelined by Web 1.0

But this initial vision was sidelined by the massive popularity of less-capable browsers that could run on PCs and Macs, such as Mozilla, Netscape and Microsoft Internet Explorer.

“We did not actually get that [vision] because it took off as a publishing medium,” Berners-Lee said. 

They also ran into other challenges in extending the work at CERN more broadly. While some of the collaborative capabilities worked in a tightly controlled environment like CERN, more work was required on single sign-on, authorization and fine-grained data-sharing to scale these ideas. 

Berners-Lee was also disappointed at the content-generation tools used to create websites. His first read-write browser took a WYSIWYG (what you see is what you get) approach, whereas other HTML editors designed for publishing required a complex process of nesting labels more akin to programming than editing a collaborative document. 

“It was amazing to find that people would write HTML files by hand,” he said. “I was not prepared to do that. I wanted to highlight something, make a link and save it back. I assumed that by 1989 this would be easy since we had Microsoft Word already doing this.”

Laying the foundation

Berners-Lee continued this research over the intervening years in the UK and later at MIT. He also incorporated these improvements into the Solid standard and helped found Inrupt to scale the adoption of the new infrastructure. 

Berners-Lee has been using Solid to capture data from all aspects of his life in an editable and shareable way. He stores his bank statements, documents, photos, music, IoT data and exercise data on a Solid storage service on his Mac Mini. He’s most excited about how it could improve collaboration between individuals, the businesses they trust and governments — safely and securely. 

Solid already supports government services, privacy-preserving medical research and new home improvement services that combine product manuals and energy management. This is just the beginning. Eventually, he believes Solid could have as profound, if not a more significant, impact as the first version of the web.

“We should have called the first one Web 0.3, and then we would be in a good place now,” he said.

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