The World Wide Web Consortium celebrated its 10th anniversary on December 1 in Boston's Fairmont Copley Hotel. The daylong symposium offered discussions on the impact of the web, on the consortium's role in developing the web, and on the risks and opportunities facing the web in the coming decade.
The consortium, known as W3C, is an international group jointly run by the MIT Computer Science and Artificial Intelligence Laboratory (CSAIL) in the USA, the European Research Consortium for Informatics and Mathematics (ERCIM) in France and Keio University in Japan. Created to develop common protocols and ensure the interoperability of the web, W3C is housed at MIT in the Stata Center.
Tim Berners-Lee, senior research scientist, is the founder of W3C and its director at CSAIL. Berners-Lee is the author of a 1989 proposal that became the basis of the World Wide Web. Known as the "father of the web," he was knighted by Queen Elizabeth in 2004. Berners-Lee participated in discussions throughout the day.
Berners-Lee said he intended the anniversary to highlight the impact of the web and W3C's "stewardship role" as well as inspire "ever more collaboration, creativity and understanding across the globe."
The event's emcee was Ethernet inventor and venture capitalist Robert Metcalfe (SB 1969). Sessions covered the impact of the web on science, industry, society, and culture. Visionary sessions explored topics including "web of meaning" and "web everywhere." New frontiers, new technical developments and new tensions to be faced by W3C were also explored.
President Charles M. Vest was a featured speaker in the morning program. Vest focused on the opportunities offered by the anniversary celebration, including, he said, the opportunity to "record and reflect on the nature of this invention and its impact; recognize the importance of individual genius and collective action; to celebrate good engineering and to thank Tim Berners-Lee and each other. It's also a time to see the opportunities and risks facing W3C in the next decade. In an age of cynicism, conflict and international tension, thanks for creating and sustaining a cooperative venture for the greater good."
The web, Vest said, has become an "indispensable part of the world's infrastructure, changing the way we live, work, learn, conduct research and business and communicate. It is an example of technology well-conceived and well-executed within an ethic of reaching for the next horizon."
W3C's presence in CSAIL has affected MIT "from admissions to OpenCourseWare," Vest said. "You have truly changed the world for the better."
Berners-Lee gave a high-speed history of the web and W3C, zipping through 25 years with evident glee, barely tapping the verbal brake as he enlivened a PowerPoint timeline on the screen behind him.
According to Berners-Lee, it was Vannevar Bush (1890-1974), first dean of MIT's School of Engineering and former chairman of the MIT Corporation, who had the "grand vision" we know now as the web. Bush dreamed up the mighty Memex, a "great big microfiche machine for connecting together, with little sensors, one text that could search for destinations in other texts. Bush thought scientists needed access to what humanity had figured out," Berners-Lee said. Bush described Memex in a now-famous essay, "As We May Think," published in July 1945 in The Atlantic Monthly.
Berners-Lee noted individual contributions to the development of the web and highlighted telling details of progress from clunky mainframes and wooden mice to today's sleek little power-packs. He acknowledged he has been mistakenly called the father of the Internet, modestly noting that the Internet, known in 1969 as ARPANET, was "around a long time before the web; e-mail was invented in 1971 and the '@' address was invented in 1972."
Panelists who spoke on the history, challenges and promise of the web for the W3C celebration represented the consortium's global reach. This group included Teri Richman,National Association of Convenience Stores; Denis Lacroix, Amadeus e-Travel; Nuala O'Connor, U.S. Department of Homeland Security; Less Rainie, Pew Internet & American Life Project; Tim O'Reilly, O'Reilly Media; Bill Ruh, Cisco Systems, and Bill Gillis, Center to Bridge the Digital Divide. Most wore dark suits and ties; a few had well-tended pony-tails.
Rodney Brooks, director of CSAIL and Fujitsu Professor of Computer Science and Engineering, introduced Vest and Metcalfe.
A version of this article appeared in MIT Tech Talk on December 8, 2004 (download PDF).