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They Could Have Been Billionaires: Tim Berners-Lee


The inventor of the World Wide Web forfeited the potential to make a Google-size fortune -- by choice.

Unlike so many groundbreaking inventions that required a melding of many great minds, one of society's most life-changing, the World Wide Web, is attributable to a single inventor: Al Gore. I jest, of course since we all know he invented the Internet, not the Web. Okay, all joking aside, the Internet wasn't really the handiwork of our former vice president (nor did he ever claim it was) but instead the collective work of several people over many decades. The World Wide Web, on the other hand, was the brainchild of one British software engineer named Tim Berners-Lee over just a couple years time.

What's the difference between the Internet and the World Wide Web? I'll spare you my clumsy interpretation and let the techsperts break it down. "All of the websites in the world, taken together, make up the World Wide Web. The Internet is the worldwide network of interconnected computers, including both Web servers and computers... that run Web browser software. The Internet also carries other kinds of network traffic unrelated to the Web."

By the time Berners-Lee wrote his proposal in 1989 for what would eventually become the Web, the ideas about an Internet-like system had been kicking around for more than 40 years. As early as 1945, an American engineer named Vannevar Bush envisioned a hypertext computer memory system, by 1974 Vinton G. Cerf and Bob Kahn conceived the Transmission Control Protocol (TCP), and the Domain Name System (DNS) was invented by Paul Mockapetris in 1983. The pieces were in place. All Berners-Lee claims to have done was put them together. As he states on his website, "I just had to take the hypertext idea and connect it to the TCP and DNS ideas and -- ta-da! -- the World Wide Web." Like, duh!

The Web was borne out of Berners-Lee's frustration with the laborious task of information-sharing among colleagues while working at the European Laboratory for Particle Physics (CERN) in Geneva, Switzerland. Everyone had different kinds of computer systems running different software so accessing someone else's data meant having to physically log onto their computer. His 'There's got to be a better way!' moment led him to wonder, "Can't we convert every information system so that it looks like part of some imaginary information system which everyone can read?" He proposed a global system that allowed computers to share information in a web of hypertext documents. One thing led to another, he built the first Web browser, yadda, yadda, yadda... and behold... the World Wide Web was unleashed to the whole wide world on August 6, 1991.

That 'elementary' hypertext + TCP + DNS process spawned a mass medium of information-sharing that would completely revolutionize the way human beings communicate, acquire information, and conduct commerce. The Web became the printing press of the 20th century. While Gutenberg never had the option of acquiring a patent because his invention predated patent law, Berners-Lee made a very conscious decision to make the Web an open-source project. In fact, he may be one of the most vocal proponents of keeping Web infrastructure unfettered and royalty-free. "...had the technology been proprietary, and in my total control, it would probably not have taken off. The decision to make the Web an open system was necessary for it to be universal. You can't propose that something be a universal space and at the same time keep control of it."

Berners-Lee could be the King of Cyberspace, perched high in a diamond-encrusted throne, reigning over the net's population of 1.8 billion users. Instead he sits on one of those hard plastic chairs in the unglamorous world of academia where he heads the World Wide Web Consortium at MIT, a nonprofit group dedicated to the principles of a free Web, that ensures others like Google (GOOG), with its market cap hovering around $160 billion, will be able to continue to feed off the teat of his Internet cash cow.

The Martin Luther King of technology, Tim Berners-Lee also has a dream. "Here is my hope. The Web is a tool for communicating. With the Web, you can find out what other people mean. You can find out where they are coming from. The Web can help people understand each other. Think about most of the bad things that have happened between people in your life. Maybe most of them come down to one person not understanding another."

Given the amazing gift he's bestowed upon us, the least we can do is try to carry out his wish. Can't we all just get along... online?
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