Tension on the threads of gold

April 7, 1995

Tim Greenhalgh reports on pains and passions which are beginning to surface through pressure from the astonishing growth of the World-Wide Web.

Robert Cailliau, one of the World-Wide Web's two inventors, pressed a computer key and paused as we absorbed fully the impact of the graphic he had transferred to the big screen.

It showed the growth of commercial traffic on the web in the past year. Business and entertainment interests now dwarf the academic and research users.

Robert Cailliau's chart showed vividly that the previous sole occupants of the magical web are now sharing space with free-market forces which are twice their size and growing exponentially.

The genial Cailliau's presentation at the recent Web Days in Geneva was part of Cern's farewell to its Internet creation.

Husbanding of the web is now split between the North American nexus under co-inventor Tim Berners-Lee at MIT, allied to a commercial consortium, and the European operation led by INRIA, the French national computing research institute.

The latter has taken over the WebCore research and promotion programme which is funded by the European Union.

The European particle physics laboratory had been the home of this benign beast. Cailliau and Berners-Lee had nursed it through the early days before watching, one suspects mouths agape, as it took flight last year.

On a "conservative" estimate the web grew by 350,000 per cent in 1994. The number of new servers feeding information onto the web is now running at about 1,000 a month. Exact figures are not easy to extract but casual observation suggests that most of these are now from the commercial sector.

Cern has other matters on its mind: searching for the secrets of the Big Bang, for example. The Large Hadron Collider Project will seek to unravel what went on at the moment of the universe's creation.

That leaves little room for the swelling Swiss cuckoo. Most of the web team are quitting the nest to either MIT or INRIA.

Where the web goes next and whether a clearer conflict of interests appears between the commercial and academic forces are issues for the third World Wide Web conference to be held in Darmstadt, Germany next week.

The Fraunhofer Institute will host what promises to be a pleasingly chaotic and vigorous debate on philosophies, technologies and practicalities of the web in its sixth year. One fear that as web standards and software evolve to accommodate online trade and commercial publishing, the needs of academic and recreational users will take second place. A more basic fear is that commercial development will destroy the generous and cooperative values of the web. Robert Cailliau for one was adamant at the Web Days that commercial interests should not colonise the hypertext network. He did not need to mention Bill Gates and Microsoft by name.

"Anyone can open a site in the same way they can open a roadside shop," he said.

His thoughts are echoed by the recently formed WWW Consortium. Its goal is to maintain the web as an open standard and it has substantial support from institutes and companies around the world. The consortium will be guided by the MIT-INRIA collaboration. Among its first tasks are the development of agreed security protocols, new versions of the hypertext mark-up language (HTML), and faster browser software. Last week the consortium was presented with a new standard for Internet security which will make commerce on the web that much easier. Netscape Communications has developed the Secure Sockets Layer (SSL), an open protocol which means that sensitive data such as credit card information can be exchanged across the web in confidence. That is why it has the backing of 15 leading computer and credit card companies, including Apple, Microsoft and Mastercard. It is a safe bet that both Cailliau and Berners-Lee will be taking a keen interest in the new protocol which should be discussed in detail at Darmstadt. Berners-Lee is chairing the final session, Developers Day, which will seek to define ways of improving the technology underlying the web.

Cailliau, meanwhile, will return to Cern while keeping a watchful eye on the development of his prodigy. At the Web Days. his enthusiasm was infectious as he talked of the next phases: faster data transmission, improved video manipulation, access by session, document authoring advances and billing procedures.

But his clear message to the commercial and academic interests there was: "The web is anarchic - we do not have hierarchies."

The intensity of his delivery was matched by speakers reflecting the current tension over the future of the web. Commercial providers praised the immediacy, intimacy and responsiveness of the system to the economic imperative.

In contrast, B?rre Ludwigsen was not selling much apart from a few ideas and opening his Norwegian home to virtual visitors via his personal server.

He asked: "Do we rent or do we buy the space created by the web?" His solution was to take the space by setting up his own server. It seemed pretty straightforward: 1 Get the most powerful computer your money can buy.

2 Buy the fastest line - at least 64k, preferably 256k.

3 Set aside four hours. Download server software from the web, configure the system, send for checks and announce your presence.

"We want to bring into our house the visitors we lost watching television," he said.

The frontier spirit notwithstanding, there was one final significant moment in Robert Cailliau's presentation - aimed at the netphobes as much as anyone.

He said: "You don't have to know anything about the computer you are talking to or even the one you are seated at."

Cailliau was genuine in his mission to demystify the web but, as a 23-year-old computer science student showed only last month, innocence and lack of knowledge are the keys to virtual hell.

Thomas Lopatic found a flaw in the popular HTTPD web server software developed in the US by the National Centre for Computer Applications. Effectively it allowed crackers an open door to the root levels of a system.

Lopatic - one of the good guys - passed the information on and a software patch was sent out hastily. But he believes it is essential for web users at all levels to know their machines and how they work.

Lopatic would have been welcome at the Web Days; he might well be a star in Darmstadt.

URL details for Cern and other Web Days contributors can be accessed from The THES welcome page http://www.timeshigher.newsint.co.uk.

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