Sir 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 that were better suited to consuming content rather than collaboration.
Web2 has since brought us apps, mobile and the cloud. But data and authentication were closely linked 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 realize the original vision, and a company, Inrupt, to commercialize this vision. He cautions that this new Web 3.0 vision for returning control over our data is vastly different from current Web3 efforts based on less efficient blockchains.
Core features of Solid include support for the following:
- Global single sign-on.
- Global access control.
- Universal API focused on people rather than apps.
VentureBeat recently spoke with Berners-Lee to learn more about his original 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 the web would be important from the start. “I wanted it to be a read-write web right away,” 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 collaborate from different offices. “They had to communicate over the internet, which just became politically correct to use in projects,” he said.
The first browser editor was built on a powerful NeXT Workstation. People could create links and add information to websites. The information was able to flow through the team to create a new balance as knowledge was added, corrected or expanded.
“Everyone on the team is knowledge-balanced, with this piece of web representing all the work they’ve done,” he said.
Sidelined by Web 1.0
But this initial vision was sidelined by the huge popularity of less capable browsers that could run on PCs and Macs, such as Mozilla, Netscape and Microsoft Internet Explorer.
“We didn’t actually get that [vision] because it took off as a publishing medium,” Berners-Lee said.
They also faced other challenges to expand the work at CERN more broadly. While some collaboration capabilities worked in a tightly controlled environment like CERN, more work on single sign-on, authorization, and fine-grained data sharing was needed to scale these ideas.
Berners-Lee was also disappointed with the content generation tools used to create websites. His first read-write browser took a WYSIWYG (what you see is what you get) approach, while other HTML editors designed for publishing required a complex process of nesting labels more akin to programming than editing a joint document.
“It was amazing to discover that people would write HTML files by hand,” he said. “I was not prepared for that. I wanted to highlight something, create a link and save it back. I assumed this would be easy in 1989, since Microsoft Word was already doing this.”
Laying the foundation
Berners-Lee continued this research in the intervening years in the UK and later at MIT. He also integrated these improvements into the Solid standard and helped Inrupt scale the adoption of the new infrastructure.
Berners-Lee uses 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 training data on a Solid storage service on his Mac Mini. He’s most excited about how it can improve collaboration between individuals, the companies they trust, and governments — safely and securely.
Solid already supports government services, medical research that protects privacy, and new home improvement services that combine product manuals and energy management. This is just the beginning. Ultimately, he believes that Solid can have as big, if not bigger, impact than the first version of the web.
“We should have called the first Web 0.3, and we’d be in a good place now,” he said.
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