AN AFTERNOON WITH SIR TIM BERNERS-LEE, INVENTOR OF THE WORLD WIDE WEB
MANILA, MARCH 14, 2007 (STAR) By Myla Crespo-Villanueva - Every second week of February, the GSM Association, with 600 operator members representing over two billion subscribers worldwide, hosts the premier wireless event of the mobile industry, the 3GSM World Congress. This year, 60,000 guests convened at the Fira de Barcelona to celebrate the latest innovations, devices, technologies, services and business models in wireless. Our very own Polly Nazareno (Smart) and Gerry Ablaza (Globe) were among the hundreds of telecom and new media CEOs, including Arun Sarin of Vodafone, Sunil Mittal of Bharti (Fortune Businessman of the Year), Edgar Bronfman Jr. of Warner Music Group, Sanjiv Ahuja of Orange, and Rene Obermann of Deutsche Telekom.
I was fortunate enough to be asked by the GSM Association to chair the Mobile Innovation Forum for 2007. This global forum brings together promising start-ups, venture capital and mobile operators. It aims to bridge and shorten the "time-to-market" between early adoption technologies and early majority launches of promising technologies. Innovation, while alive and well supported by capital and media in the Internet space, is a main priority in the mobile world these next two years. One can imagine the difficulty of promising start-ups, say in Asia, in offering products and services to Vodafone in UK or Telefonica in Spain. The telco world is very geographical in nature, and the launching of a global service is a very daunting task for any start-up with a bright idea. Venture capital, while available, could also use more visibility of such globally dispersed start-ups. Mobile operators, on the other hand, could use a forum to "fish" for promising new innovative services and infrastructure, as penetration and market growth rates for voice and text begin to mature.
Aside from the prestigious Mobile Innovation Awards honoring companies in mobile content and infrastructure, another task of the Forum is to engage thought leaders to share their vision of the future world of mobile.
With all the dynamic telco and media CEOs present in Barcelona, it would have been a difficult task to choose just one to interview. But this year, there was one in particular who was most intriguing to me. What better way to understand the future of mobile and the Internet than from the man who invented the World Wide Web? His thoughts on the new world order as cellular, fixed line and the Internet collide or converge could give meaningful insights to many young developers and inventors weaving their own inventions for the mobile space.
It was in the late 80s, while at the particle physics lab at CERN Switzerland that a unique use of the hypertext was proposed by Tim Berners-Lee or TBL, as he is fondly called. It was a way for scientists and researchers there to share and update their information around the campus. In its simplest form, the Web came into being by interlinking hypertext documents (and thus, scientists and researchers globally) over the Internet. The first website was put online by TBL on Aug. 6, 1991.
What continues to amaze me is that Sir Tim Berners-Lee gave away much of his intellectual property with no royalties or patents due, for his work. This was at a decade when his youthful Internet colleagues on the other side of the world, lived out the American Silicon Dream on Internet inventions. With the help of Sand Hill Road venture capital or Wall Street, the Internet frenzy of the 90s started. The Web browser Netscape Navigator of 22-year-old Marc Andreessen, for instance, raised billions of dollars in Netscape’s IPO (and eventual sale) in 1995, capitalizing on the nascent popularity of the World Wide Web.
For his work, Tim Berners-Lee was given the rank of Knight Commander, the second-highest rank in the Order of the British Empire in 2004. Time Magazine also recognized him in its list of the 100 Most Influential People in the 20th Century.
Following are the excerpts of our interview, where we speak about the present and future state of the intelligent Web on mobile. Also discussed is Net Neutrality, one of the hottest issues being debated in US Congress today. It is a looming battle between the Internet players and telecommunications companies, as to whether or not bandwidth should be regulated via "Quality of Service" technologies by telecom companies, to prioritize different types of traffic internet and non-internet, over their access and delivery networks. TBL is a passionate advocate of Net Neutrality.
MCV: A few years back you wrote in your book, Weaving the Web, that the Web is far from done. Are you happy with the present state of the Web?
TBL: Well, I suppose, the agenda which I started with and the agenda in the book in ’97 have to a certain extent still to be resolved. In some ways, it still has to make progress. The big thing is the Web being a more collaborative space where everyone can be an author. That was true of the first browser editor… then there was a gap when HTML became too complicated. Now you see these sites, blogs and wikis use a very simple mark-up that allows people to be creative. The wiki to edit each other’s content to be collaborative. The good news is that we’ve started back on the path toward collaborative creativity. The unfortunate thing is, still on the agenda, is to make it a nice, easy WYSIWYG editor. For example, we have simple hypertext and e-mail clients. We have simple hypertext editors which a lot of people use. But they are not… you can’t use them in HTML form. You can’t put it in a Web page. You can’t put hypertext. So the blogs are more complicated than they should be. But I think that both blogs and wikis are examples of a set of a new genre of communications of which we are going to see many new members in the future.
MCV: What is good about its future? I wanted to know whether you are happy with what you are seeing, in terms of the development stream.
TBL: Oh, basically very exciting and certainly there are benefits that can way outmatch the worries. For example, the Semantic Web is starting to take off. In certain areas, it is going with very strong exponential growth. For example, webs of data that open webs of social networking information are being put out there in RDF with FOAF (Friend-of-a-Friend) project. They just put it out there in an established format and then it becomes much more reusable when doing all sorts of exciting things with that data… Single Sign-on has been an issue from the practice of how people use it. Using multiple websites, going from blog to blog, they may have an account at one blog to actually put comments on another one. There are systems like Open ID, which will come, which may allow that.
We’ve got standards for digital signature and encryption which would allow us to make very secure systems. But we don’t have the trust model. So one of the things which are coming is connecting together the social networking output using RDF, FOAF and Open ID-type of things together with a trust model so that can start putting information which enables my computer to figure out who to trust as the social networks develop. Hence, there will be ways to figure out,’"How do I know this person? Why should I accept an e-mail from him?" and after a while I might say if you don’t have a Friend-of-a-Friend file, then you won’t be able to send me e-mail because you will have to first authenticate by showing that you are part of a social network which includes people that I trust. So, I think there’s a lot of exciting developments to come in that area. And interestingly enough as we get these trust networks developed, that I think will also enable more sharing… more collaborative editing. What people do at the moment with wikis is completely public, and what they do with a blog is completely public. But not everything you want to do is completely public… what you are doing within your team, within your company or within your family. And so, when we have this social networking structure you can easily make groups and those groups are shared across different websites, then that will open the door to a whole lot more collaboration.
MCV: Let us talk a little bit about the mobile Web. The experiences are so different between the fixed Internet user and the mobile Web user. How do you see the differences in the use evolving, and what will remain the same?
TBL: Clearly, there are two things which are difficult at the moment. Single sign-on which we mentioned might be manageable on the Web where you can type, where you have a keyboard, but is much more trouble for a mobile user. The mobile user has much more incentive to get things like Open ID working. In general, I don’t like to divide mobile users into one… just put a line… and say, "This is mobile and this is fixed." Because there are so many different variants… now there’s mobility, there’s if you have a higher bandwidth or lower bandwidth, there’s where you have a big screen or a little screen, whether you have a good attention span or low attention span. These are all different aspects.
MCV: There must be something we can offer as a mobile device… location-based services… things like personalization…
TBL: I suppose, one is the device is very personal so that it can contain your identity.
TBL: So, just as in Japan, we see people buying things. Or buying train tickets with their phone and waving the phone at the train seats to find out where their seat is. The phone can be your identity in a way that a computer really can’t.
So, the phone there may take over as the user’s agent for security purposes, in ways that are really not connected to communications. It becomes the agent to do secure transactions.
MCV: What is your vision of the intelligent mobile Web? You speak a lot about Semantic Web now. Is there a role for mobile in that space?
TBL: The Semantic Web is a word for integrating data across applications. So on the mobile phone, typically at the moment, you already have data about people and about calendar events and a lot of systems, and also you have Web pages. But you can’t… you know with the Semantic Web, you should be able to move from the place where we are using GSM to find the things that are happening there… to find the people who are there and they should automatically appear on your address book… and so on. So the Semantic Web on the mobile phone is in a way an extra power because of the two extra senses you get on the mobile phone. You get location and you get the surrounding devices… the presence. Who am I near to? What am I in? So in a way, what the Semantic Web is good at doing is providing access to data which comes from mixed applications and mixed data sources.
So, it will allow people to combine information from the room environment with information from your calendar, both of which may be about the meeting. One will be about the physical arrangements of the meeting that control the blinds… the weather outside. But the other will be about the schedule and the meeting agenda and who are there.
MCV: So you see these really extending into mobile?
TBL: Yes, I think the Semantic Web is a tool. So, it is a tool for integrating across applications and that is very important in the mobile phone environment as well. Also, because it allows the computer to help the user handle data which is from a different application. The mobile phone user does not always have the ability to have the time, or the ability to just download lots of new applications to deal with new data. So there has to be a branch to look up things which go through… from looking at the user’s address book. Perhaps, now I’m sitting next to the user, so my mobile device picks up that I am near you. Our phones exchange your public list of publications. Now, I am browsing through your list of publications. I don’t have a publication of you. But I have a Semantic Web program which can help me, which can understand how to help me through this new sort of information. So you asked about where it was going…
MCV: From a mobile perspective…
TBL: The mobile perspective we tend to have at the moment is the mobile as a device connected to the Internet but very much a standalone device like a computer. It is the thing in which you sit in front of… you are holding it. There will, of course, be potentially lots of devices. You may have many different devices of different sizes. One that is super small that you can hold in your hand while driving but really only has controls and voice, and another which has a larger screen which you can sit down with and use when you are on the bus and so on.
There will also, I think, be more and more displays. As displays get cheaper, you will start finding them as a random thing. You will already see them on refrigerators. I heard on the radio that you can put LED displays underneath the artificial turf on a sports field so that you can turn the whole sports field into a television. So you have these huge displays around, the mobile phone is something, or the wristwatch which is something that really needs a bigger display. If we solve the social networking of the phone being able to trust the display, which it finds itself "on the air"… then these things will be able to work together. So the vision of the mobile Web in the future is what we are calling the ubiquitous Web. It is the Web where the application that the users are doing like booking a flight, for example… reserving a hotel room or booking in a restaurant… is in an abstract space. The users, perhaps, are aware of the flights and aware of the travel services that they are doing it with, but are not tied to the phone. It is in an abstract space. It is in the Web. It has a URL. You can look up that URL. You can bookmark it on the phone and un-bookmark it on a laptop or un-bookmark in the living room, when the living room wall is one big display. And in that case the phone may still be the way of communicating with the travel agent but the living room wall will be where the pictures of the hotel, the map of the city and the menu are displayed. So, I suppose the ubiquitous Web is about the applications getting detached separately from the devices while using both these devices. As a result, being of use, multiple devices can be used in a quite seamless way.
MCV: Is that all mechanical? It seems that you are creating "human-type interfaces" there with some sort of artificial intelligence. But is it still mechanical in nature?
TBL: It is still mechanical in nature. Everything we are talking about… no, I didn’t say artificial intelligence. All the things we’ve talked about are just mechanical in the sense that they are programs. They were written by people, like the Web browser is mechanical. The Web browser itself is very mechanical. The systems it connects to inside are very mechanical. But the effect of multiple, of millions of millions of systems out there, is to the user very organic. Because the Web is a web of people, millions of people. What you experience when you are out there is the culture of millions of people. And many different cultures all inter-tangled, all inter-twingled and interconnected in complicated ways. And that effect is very organic. So when we design these systems, we might design something which is mechanical in the microscopic sense that the connection between your browser and your Web server will be mechanical. But the effect when you yourself are in this medium, of all the vacations, all the information, the multimedia information on the Web of the vacations that you would be interested in and possibly taking ... and all the menus of the restaurants you might go to when you are there, that will, I think, be much more organic.
TBL: Richer. Complicated… intertwined… with overlapping communities of many, many scales.
MCV: Well, some of my friends in the operator community really wanted me to ask you this question: What do you think is the role…?
TBL: Come on here… come on, ask this question…!! (Laughter)
MCV: I would love to ask you this question. What do you think is role of the mobile operator in the future of the mobile Internet or Web as you call it? How do you think operators can best add value and stimulate innovation and usage of various mobile Web services?
TBL: The primary role of the telecommunications operator is to connect people. Just to connect devices. So, providing connectivity… providing different levels of connectivity ... different speeds… maybe different delays… providing the sort of connectivity which I can use for video. But in the future, providing Internet connectivity is the primary goal… should be the primary goal of the operator, doing it better than the next operator. Doing it cheaper than the next operator. Investing in it for the future. Providing this connectivity without constraining how it is used. The Internet has thrived because there is intense competition and research and innovation in providing Internet connectivity. And there is a separate intense competition for providing content and services using that connectivity. If the two have been connected together, as they were, with, for example, Prodigy and AOL… and you know Delphi and the online data services before the Web, then the innovation would be limited to the innovation that would come out from the lab of your particular operator. I am very pleased to see here, in the corridors, the fact that the industry is waking up and realizing the extent to which the mobile operators should be a foundation technology.
MCV: Well… Quality of Service…
TBL: Can we add one other thing on that?
MCV: Sure, of course…
TBL: One of the interesting things that a mobile operator does too… is it authenticates, provides an identity. So, on a website, at the moment on the Internet, it is difficult to find out who I connect to. Providing a service I use may ask for credit card numbers… and may ask for e-mail addresses. Some way that I can use to connect. One of the things which I first suggested this week is that one should use the… when you are coming in from a mobile device is a telephone number that the mobile operators could also, on the Internet, provide a website which allows third parties to authenticate that you are the person, using Internet protocols. Using something like Open ID. Provide a server which would allow people very easily, without typing passwords, to allow the operator to authenticate particular websites. So that when they use those websites they come in as a trusted user of a given phone.
MCV: There are some developments toward that space. So, I am happy to tell you it is something we are also very excited about in terms of mobile and fixed convergence. This whole FMC space is really driving a lot of it…
MCV: Fixed mobile convergence is driving a lot of new thinking (in identity), hopefully maybe along the lines of alignment and collaboration.
TBL: Well, on the Internet at the moment, there are various interesting things like Open ID. Have you come across that? That is a single sign-on solution which is very grassroots. It is very easy to adjust people with blog websites to set up… you authenticate with one blog and re-authenticate to different ones. So, I am interested to look at initiatives like that and see where they can just tie in to your group.
MCV: Well, let us talk about QoS (Quality of Service). You know the QoS issues on mobile networks are a little bit more complex. You may agree or disagree... What are your thoughts on paid differentiated services in that environment and as perhaps different from the paradigm in the fixed Internet world? I mean your thoughts are very well known as to…
TBL: You mean Net Neutrality? But you must not confuse the two. Because when people talk about Net Neutrality they don’t say it is not about a fixed quality of service. Net Neutrality is very compatible with selling different QoS at a different price. It is just that when you sell a video-capable Internet service the idea is that I become unrestricted as to who I connect to. That is the idea of a neutral network. It becomes a technical question of what you can… of whether you need to make a completely separate service for running video. Is that, for example…?
MCV: Even voice. Even things as simple as voice we are having…
TBL: That is possible. What has happened largely in the online fixed world, of course, is that the bandwidth of the Net is so much higher than the bandwidth of the voice. The voice loss is not particularly noticeable. The transmission rates are so fast that latencies are so low that it is not a problem. So, several years ago, it would have been to have separate QoS for voice; now that is not the case. So, now…
MCV: In the mobile world, the frequency is very scarce and the architecture is well, a little different...
TBL: But listening to Hakan Eriksson’s talk this morning, then we know how all the parameters of QoS they have demonstrated are going up. So you have to be careful judging your future architecture based on today’s parameters. Like deciding what computers would be like based on a CPM machine running at 8MHz or something. Now, one should design for the world which is coming. And the world which is coming is a world which is currently on laptop computers. Systems running Unix with more powerful processors, with more powerful connectivity. All from what I have heard at this conference are being developed on the mobile platform. They are all coming to the mobile platform.
So I think the important thing is that you separate the QoS issues from the neutrality issues. The neutrality is important anyway. QoS issues… that would depend on technical things… that would depend on the market segments and what the market needs. I would personally be very happy to pay more money for connectivity which was, say, video-capable.
MCV: Okay, that’s nice to know… Anyway, I am from the Philippines and we have 1.2 billion messages exchanged daily over there. And yet as in many emerging markets, the Web has been available only to the urban areas and even then our penetration rates are not anywhere near the developed world. Aside from price, what do you think will change this? Is there anything that the developer community needs to do to address this?
TBL: Remember… the developing world. For somebody who is getting information by SMS message, they’re using very low bandwidth. When the Web started, a lot of people dialed in on 300 baud modems. So somebody described Web traffic as being higher bandwidth than voice. It’s not. If you want to find out what the weather is on the other side of the island. If you want to find out when the shops close before you go down there. If you just want to find out whether your grandmother is alive, you don’t need very many bits. So, I think a lot of really important applications, which include downloading my bank statement. That is not very many bits. It is important enough but the numbers are very small and easy to transmit. (Laughter)
So making sure that we still provide Web access even on systems which have got low CPU power and low connectivity is still important. And realizing that there may be very specific services that you want to supply. The mobile Web initiative, obviously, is a group of people… of companies who want to ensure that there is as much information as possible that would be available across the board on mobile and just as well as fixed systems. If you looks at the W3C mobile initiative guidelines and materials they will encourage you… they will show you how to get the "Mobile OK" brand and that initiative will make it easier, I think, for people to access information when you got low bandwidth. People in developing countries may rapidly move to having very large screens on their phones… and they may often be in very high bandwidth areas … but as that class of early adaptors who have driven it for the last few years move on out of the position… out of the low bandwidth user group. As Eriksson said, the next billion users will be moving in. The next huge market segment. So, I think for a long time it is worth putting in a lot of effort into making websites which work with just a few bits of text. Text is very powerful. If the Web works with text…
MCV: Anyway… a personal question. Who are your Internet heroes?
TBL: Who are my Internet heroes? What do you mean? People who are on the Internet?
MCV: People you admire for their work…
TBL: Well, of course, the people who have gone before like Bob Kahn, Vince Cerf, Paul Mockapetris, who designed the Domain Name System (DNS) that, of course, everybody relies on quietly… put together the Internet. And all the people who worked on that. And everybody who uses the Internet has to appreciate the work that they put in to make it a good foundation, to make it a technology which would allow any application to run on top of it. We tried to follow in their footsteps. When it comes to the Web, there are the millions of people, some of whom have helped develop the standards, some of whom put up the initial Web servers when they didn’t have any authority from their boss. Or at 2 a.m. they would put…
MCV: Did you do that?!
TBL: I eventually got an OK from my boss. But it was very unofficial. Basically, he said, between projects you can work on this hypertext.
Other people… I got e-mail from people who said the same things like in the middle of the night they installed a Web server. We got the same thing, the excitement now with the Semantic Web. People are just finding pieces of data which they think are really important to have in a common data format. Converting it… finally, figuring out how it is written and you have got these little bits of data of proteins or events or weather information or whatever it is. So, there is very much of this excitement in these people doing it on a grassroots thing. My heroes are the people in the grassroots. They are so diverse. A lot of them have come together and we met them at consortium meetings. Some of them we just connect with over the Internet and they put in a huge amount of energy and a huge amount of creativity.
MCV: Okay, last question. For the folk in the Philippines, India and developing countries and young developers across the world, can you give us a message on innovation and where they should look for it?
TBL: Um… I am not going to tell them what to innovate because, as I said, the most exciting thing about the Web is that it doesn’t control or limit what innovations people do on top of it. So, it is really up to their own creativity. I think that the human mind is a wonderful thing in that when you are not sitting down thinking about your trouble or… problems specifically, but you are staring at the… toward the mountains… then it has this way of coming up with new solutions and new ideas. So, I encourage people to daydream about how things can be different. And hopefully on the Web, I suppose the ultimate goal for it is… that it becomes a way in which somehow we can daydream together… and we can end up with a group creativity which is bigger than the creativity of our individuality.
MCV: Thank you very much for your time and I know you are only here for the day, and I hope it was worth the travel for you.
TBL: It was… it was my pleasure.
MCV: Come back and join us again in the Mobile Innovation Forum at some point in time. We are planning to make it a bigger endeavor as time goes by. Thank you very much.
TBL: Thank you.
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Myla Crespo-Villanueva chairs the GSMA’s Mobile Innovation Forum. She is also a member (representing Smart Communications) of the GSMA Executive Management Committee, a 23-man body which vets future products and services for global mobile interoperability. She is also a partner in Hong Kong-based Novare Technologies, her fifth start-up which develops fixed-mobile convergence software in the Philippines for global service providers. E-mail at firstname.lastname@example.org
Chief News Editor: Sol Jose Vanzi
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