At the International Digital Publishing Forum’s Digicon 16 conference, held May 10 at BEA in Chicago, Tim Berners-Lee, the inventor of the World Wide Web, was introduced as “one of us” by Bill McCoy, IDPF’s executive director. Berners-Lee opened the conference by offering his vision of the future of Web publishing: a seamless integration of Web technology and content across print and virtually any device with a screen.
In a keynote speech titled “Realizing the Vision of Publishing Technology Being Web Technology,” Berners-Lee, who is also founder and director of the World Wide Web Consortium (W3C), outlined the history of the Web as a publishing channel—albeit an anarchic, innovative, and disruptive one—and its future as an enabler for publishing technologies far beyond anything we can conceive of today.
Berners-Lee said that “setting up a website is like setting up a bookstore,” comparing the Web to the earlier launch of Project Gutenberg, the open-source e-book project founded in 1971. Berners-Lee went on to outline the development of the Web since its early days in the 1990s—when its users were mostly “scientists, geeks, and people with lots of data”—to what is now a “massive shift from static Web links to being a Web where every online page could be programmed like a computer.”
W3C’s Open Web Platform fosters interoperability (the ability to run all kinds of content on all kinds of platforms) and, he said, “the kind of coding you see in e-books may also be used in cars, on screens of all kinds,” including yet-to-be-conceived-of technology that could turn the walls of a classroom or conference hall into screens that can display, say, the content on a smartwatch. “Print books will be here forever,” he said, but with Web technology, “people will be able to take them everywhere.” He added, “This is challenging and exciting.”
Berners-Lee is a fascinating thinker and speaker whose words often rush forward in clusters and seem to collide with one another in a linguistic mash-up, as he works to get all his thoughts out as quickly as possible. But in an interview with PW, he was able to articulate his thoughts on creating one of the most important technology tools of the 20th and 21st centuries.
Asked if he had foreseen the changes that the Web has had on the world, Berners-Lee says: “Nobody could have expected today’s world [of technology]. The Web allows you to do any crazy idea, and you’re only limited by your own creativity.” He adds that publishing and collaboration were part of his thinking when he invented the Web in 1989: “There is a universality on the Web. It can be used for any genre. You can browse. It’s flexible. It unleashes the shackles put on publishing by paper.”
Asked about the Web and the rise of self-publishing, Berners-Lee cites the bloggers and bulletin boards launched in the early days of the Internet: “They were a big part of the Web, so empowering the individual was always there. The Web levels the playing field, and yes, that means you also get a lot of junk.” He also acknowledges that “the Web challenges all business models, but it creates new ones.”
“We used to have shelves of technical manuals, but no more,” Berners-Lee says. “So the Web saved a lot of trees. But, in general, there are now other models to sell content through apps, subscriptions, and advertising-based models.”
Asked about certain critics, such as Nicholas Carr, who claim the Internet is diminishing people’s attention span, Berners-Lee says: “The Web changes how we think, but I don’t think its making people stupid. The Web changes the things we have to do. We do things more quickly now. We don’t have to memorize things anymore. There is a way for people to become experts more easily.”
Berners-Lee’s talk came as members of IDPF, which creates digital publishing standards, and W3C, which creates Web standards, convened at BEA to discuss the merits of a possible merger of the two organizations.
McCoy provided an extended presentation to the membership, outlining the benefits of the merger—among them accelerating the “convergence” of the Web and publishing technologies; new developments in the nature of authoring, curation and reading itself; and an acceleration of “portable Web documents” that can be read offline as well as online.
However, the proposed merger was met with some skepticism from OverDrive CEO Steve Potash, who founded the Open E-Book Forum, the predecessor to IDPF. Potash questioned whether IDPF members understood the consequences of the merger—specifically that IDPF would cease to exist and its intellectual property would be owned by W3C.
The proposal was put before the membership to solicit feedback. No official date to vote on the merger has been set.