Introduced as “one of us” by Bill McCoy, executive director of the International Digital Publishing Forum, at IDPF’s Digicon conference on Tuesday, Sir Tim Berners-Lee, the inventor of the World Wide Web, offered 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 called “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 publishing channel—albeit an anarchic, innovative and disruptive one—and its future as enabler for publishing technologies far beyond anything we can conceive of today. Indeed his talk comes as IDPF (which creates digital publishing standards) and W3C (which creates Web standards) membership convene during BEA to discuss the merits of a possible merger of the two organizations.
Berners-Lee, credited with inventing the Web, said “setting up a website is like setting up a bookstore,” comparing his invention 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 from its early users—“scientists, geeks, and people with lots of data”—to 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), he said, and “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 class room or conference hall into screens that can display, say, the content on your smartwatch. “Print books will be here forever,” he said, but with Web technology, “people will be able to take them everywhere. 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 another in a linguistic mash-up as he works to get all his thoughts out as quickly as possible. But in an earlier one on one interview with PW, he was able to offer a clear version of his thoughts on creating one of the most important technology tools of the 20th century.
Asked if had foreseen the changes that Web would have on the world, he told PW, “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 said that publishing and collaboration were always part of his thinking when he invented the web. “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, he cited the bloggers and bulletin boards launched in the early days of the web. “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 acknowledged that “the Web challenges all business models, but it creates new ones.”
“We used to have shelves of technical manuals, but no more. So the Web saved a lot of trees. But in general there are now other models to sell content through apps, subscription and advertising-based models.”
Asked about certain critics such as Nicholas Carr, who claim the internet is diminishing people’s attention span, he said, “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.”
A version of this article also appeared in the May 11, 2016 PW BEA Show Daily.