US players corner the Euro game

How the Web was Born
November 3, 2000

Books on the world wide web abound, but books on its history are less common. Tim Berners-Lee, the inventor of the web, gives a very personal account of the web's origins in "Weaving the Web" ( THES review, 14 July). The book under review here is also co-authored by one of the web's important founders, Robert Cailliau, together with a science writer/editor, like Berners-Lee based at the time at Cern, the international particle physics facility near Geneva where the web was born.

Berners-Lee considered the past, present and future of the web. How the Web was Born: The Story of the World Wide Web , apart from a short epilogue, covers its pre-history and beginnings, finishing around 1995 when the web was really starting to take off in the public's perception.

The first three chapters make very little reference to the web at all. After an initial brief allusion to it, the book presents some of the underlying principles of the internet itself and the packet-switching technology that allows network communication to happen, at a level that should give most academically inclined readers, whether scientists or otherwise, a taste of the mechanisms involved and how they came about.

Due tribute is given to Donald Davies, the early packet switching pioneer at the National Physical Laboratory, who died earlier this year. The book also covers the origins of Cern, early luminaries who foresaw and developed hypertext, such as Vannevar Bush and Ted Nelson, the rise of personal computers and competing, but ultimately unsuccessful, internet navigation systems like archie and gopher.

It explores the background to Berners-Lee's invention and his realisation that the resources available to him at Cern were (not surprisingly) inadequate to complete the task of launching the web globally.

The web was officially designed to allow an internationally distributed group of physicists to access and update resources on multiple computers in a natural and convenient manner. Berners-Lee's insight led to the formation of a global naming scheme, together with a simple mark-up language including arbitrary hyperlinks and a fast protocol to transfer the information.

The simplicity was deceptive and what seems obvious now was far from it, even within the hypertext community, before the web existed.

Berners-Lee's ambitions were more far-reaching that just serving the Cern community. The solution was to make available what he had and wait for others to provide further software. In particular, web browsers were required for success on a range of platforms - such as PC, Apple Macintosh and Unix with X-Windows. Berners-Lee's original and excellent browser only ran on poorly marketed NeXT computers, which restricted widespread use. Once the internet community caught onto the idea, a number of browsers were produced externally, leading to Marc Andreesson's renowned Mosaic browser that ran on all the major platforms. This really launched the web in the academic internet world and was ultimately re-engineered as the commercial product, Netscape.

This book brings out the political and cultural differences between Europe and the US and illustrates why many technological developments gravitate to the US.

The political and bureaucratic red tape involved in multinational Europe, while avoidable in low-key efforts, such as Berners-Lee's initial WWW project, restricts a fast response when technology becomes hugely successful, as in the case of the web. The Americans caught onto the idea faster than the Europeans because better communications and internet infrastructure were already available.

I joined the web story in 1994 - relatively late in the timeline of this book - when I started to contribute to the WWW Virtual Library, founded by Berners-Lee to help index the web. That December, I also attended the meeting in Brussels when the formation of a web consortium to guide web standards and keep them non-proprietary was announced.

The tension and difference in style between European and US interests then was obvious even to a newcomer like me and this book gives a good exposition of the problems of cooperation across the Atlantic.

Ultimately Berners-Lee moved to the Massachusetts Institute of Technology - now the centre of action for web standards with effective control of the W3C consortium - and INRIA (a large and respected French research organisation) replaced Cern as the European counterpart. This is the point at which this book's story ends.

The book demonstrates that successful technologies in the increasingly fast-moving computing and networking world tend to begin with highly motivated and innovative, often altruistic, individuals with sympathetic managers and enough resources to explore their ideas in a stimulating environment. Certainly the internet and the web are examples of this. Standards for these were reached by consensus in a seemingly ad hoc manner, without recourse to traditional standards-setting bodies, where progress is typically measured in decades.

Good examples of the two different approaches are the internet protocols developed by enthusiasts using the informal, but highly effective, "Request for Comments" series of documents - often made available and transmitted electronically as required - versus the lumbering Open Systems Interconnection (OSI) protocols widely supported in Europe, with major meetings only every four years. The latter ultimately lost out to the internet despite strong official backing.

The book includes a useful timeline, from 1935 to 1995, a list of people involved, with a brief description of each - indispensable given the numbers mentioned in the book - a bibliography with notes, a full list of abbreviations and an index. These make it a useful and academically credible reference work, as well as being a good read.

Overall, it is worthwhile for anyone interested in the origins of the web in particular and the development of the internet in general. Gillies and Cailliau give a Eurocentric view of developments, but not too overtly, and this is no bad thing in the US-oriented world of computer technology.

Jonathan Bowen is professor of computing, South Bank University, London.

How the Web was Born: The Story of the World Wide Web

Author - James Gillies and Robert Cailliau
ISBN - 0 19 286207 3
Publisher - Oxford University Press
Price - £8.99
Pages - 320

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