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WWW from the first minute and the first hand

November 12, 2015, 13:48 UTC+3

On the 25th anniversary of the web, one of its founders, member of Internet Hall of Fame Francois Fluckiger in an interview with TASS

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© Claudia Marcelloni/CERN


One of World-Wide Web founders, member of the Internet Hall of Fame, Francois Fluckiger told TASS about the creation of Web, his struggle in promoting Internet in Europe, threats for the young Web and the difference between the Web and the Internet on the day of the web's 25th anniversary.

- How did WWW emerge? Were there any other concepts or ideas, did it risk dying before birth?

- The World-Wide Web was born at CERN. Like many births, including the origin of biological life, I think that the coming of the Web was probably a mix of chance and necessity. So it could have never appeared. This story is not very well known. In  June 1980, a team of half a dozen “rent-a-programmers” were hired by CERN from a British electronics company. The chance was that, in addition to writing software, they had been asked to thoroughly document their work. One of the young engineers proposed to use a special technique to reflect the dependencies and references between the multiple parts of his own documentation. The small system he wrote was called Enquire. When the young engineer left CERN at the end of the contract, the floppy disk with the code of the Enquire system ended up in a drawer and no-one ever reused it. The technique that had been prototyped for the Enquire system was hypertext and the young British engineer was Tim Berners-Lee.  This might just had been the end of the Web!! But by chance, this did not happen.

- Was the Web idea totally new?

- The hypertext concept was not invented by Tim Berners-Lee. And Enquire was not the first implementation of the concept. Vannevar Bush had laid down the principle for his theoretical Memex device as early as 1945 and Ted Nelson had coined the term in 1963 in the context of the Xanadu project. And in 1968, Douglas Engelbart made the first demonstration of an hypertext system.

- How did it happen that Enquire got revived?

- Tim returned to the UK in December 1980 but the chance was that he applied for fellowship at CERN in 1984. And in parallel to his work on CERN accelerator control system, and without any formal mandate, he started to reflect on how to solve the problem of the huge mass of diverse digital information CERN and our user community at large had to deal with. Naturally, he thought to a hypertext system, but unlike Enquire, not a centralized system that, he had realized, would never scale, but a fully distributed system.

To implement his idea of a document access system, Tim Berners-Lee needed a standard format for describing text documents.  The chance again was that at CERN, a world-class expertise existed on document standards. CERN experts had been major contributors to the Standard Generalized Markup Language (SGML) released by the International Standards Organization (ISO). With their advices and support, Tim invented the Web document format standard, the famous Hypertext Markup Language (HTML).

With HTML, one component of the web technology was designed. But two others were missing. First a set of communications rules was needed between two computers to exchange documents: how to request a document, how to transport a document if available. Such a set of rules is called a protocol.  Tim had to invent a Hypertext Transport Protocol – what he called HTTP. Second, a mechanism was needed to unambiguously and uniquely identify any document, any resource. Tim had to invent a Universal mechanism, the Universal Resource Locator (URL).

Did Tim Berners-Lee receive a lot of support from CERN?
Not really to be honest. I would say that he was allowed to do it. His famous 1st proposal which received as comment from his boss “Vague but exciting” never received a formal reply. But he did it, with limited resources initially.

- What was your role in the matter at that time?

My main contribution has been to protect the Web against appropriation and keep it open.

When Tim returned to CERN in 1980, I was there as a young engineer. I had been given the job to develop CERN’s external networking, that is, the physical connections between CERN and the rest of the world. At that time this amounted to two minuscule leased lines, one to the UK, the other to Paris.  Eight years later, CERN had become the centre of an enormous star-shaped network, the largest internet hub in Europe. Just imagine: in 1991, 80% of the internet capacity in Europe for international traffic was installed at CERN! It is no surprise that the performance of Tim Berners-Lee’s first web server impressed the world: it was at the heart of the European internet, just a few hops from most destinations. 

The chance was also that the web met the Internet. By 1988, it became clear to me and my colleagues at CERN involved in Networking that IP (the Internet Protocol) was the base technology of choice for future networks. This is what Tim was looking for. He designed his HTTP system to work perfectly on top of the Internet IP technology.

- What had been the worst threat of the web in its early days?

- Well, this is where I played a more important my role.  And where the chance intervened one last time.

In 1993, Tim Berners-Lee considered necessary to open more widely the availability of the web software. The 30 April 1993, CERN relinquished all intellectual property rights to the Web software and put it in the Public Domain. It was considered as the best thing to do, CERN saying 'Hi guys, we no longer own the Web software. It’s no longer ours. Thus you may use it freely.' At that time, concepts like open software and public domain were in their infancy.  What had not been realized in that if it belongs to no one, anyone can say 'OK, since it belongs to no none, now it’s mine!'. This is third party appropriation of an invention which has no longer an owner to protect it.

In summer 1994, Tim Berners-Lee left CERN to the MIT to create the World-Wide Web Consortium (W3C). I was asked to take over him at CERN.  The technical team was preparing the release of version 3 of the CERN server software.

By that time, the principles of open source had become better known at CERN, and the risks of appropriation by third parties were more clearly understood. Indeed, any company could have taken the web software and denied, after a minor correction, others to use it freely. The chance was that over these 18 months, this did not happen.

In November 1994, I organized the release of version 3 as open source:  CERN retained the intellectual property but gave to anyone the perpetual and irrevocable right to use, modify and distribute it freely.  To protect freedom and avoid appropriation, all the subsequent releases were distributed by the MIT under a very similar open source licence and not put in the public domain.

- Was the web something requested by scientists at CERN?

- No, and that is one of the most interesting aspect of the Web history. One that most people ignore.

I said that the coming of the Web was I think a mix of chance and necessity. 

Too many projects seek their goal retrospectively.  The Web fulfilled a genuine need, that of a well-defined community – the community of particle physicists,  made up of ten thousand researchers and technicians, spread all over the whole world. The web was a necessity, the CERN community needed it, but they did not know they needed it. This is the property of some disruptive inventions: no-one requests it, but once there no-one can do without it.

Indeed, Tim Berners-Lee 1989 proposal triggered little interest. One has to admit that re-reading the text, it is hard to figure out that it will revolutionize the world. Until 1994, the project received very limited resources from CERN. But it was allowed to continue, despite the lack of interest from potential users.

The project was presented in 1992 by Tim to the HEPnet Requirements Committee, a gathering a physicists tasked to formulate the physicist needs in networking. No-one understood really the benefits. This is only when physicists started to use it that they understood what it was: an unconscious necessity.

- When they started using it, what was the main plus the physicists found?

What the web brought to physicists is the abolition of the login tyranny. Before the web it was possible to access remote information (files, programmes, text, etc.) but on two conditions: first to know on which remote computer the information was, second to be registered on this computer and to login (or provide otherwise your credentials) on the  target computer). The conjunction of clickable hyperlinks and login-less servers removed these two barriers.

- Could it be that the internet stayed in CERN as an instrument for scientists?

No. And the fact that it was called from its inception World-Wide-Web and not CERN-Web is the evidence.

Beyond chance and necessity, there are other reasons for the success of the World-Wide Web, whereas many other technological projects have foundered.  And one is indeed the “think-global” spirit. In Tim Berners-Lee’s design, the planetary dimension was present right at the beginning. Even if today’s universality is beyond his wildest dreams, he designed the web for a global community, with a permanent concern of scalability and simplicity

- Was clear from the beginning already that its expansion was inevitable?
I think that today’s universality is beyond Tim wildest dreams. He wanted it to be universal; he designed it for a global community, with a permanent concern of scalability and simplicity.  It I assume it may be by 1992 or so that he became confident he would succeed. For most of us at CERN, and for myself, it was a bit later, by the spring 1993 when we saw the first web graphical interface (Mosaic), that we became certain that nothing could stop it. 

- Any other reasons for the success of the Web?

Well, it also turned out that several cutting-edge technical skills were gathered together with Tim Berners-Lee, in particular a great knowledge of networking and of document structure techniques. 

In our more and more complex technological world, the compartmentalization of individuals into specialities is a brake on creativity and often progress in science or technology is made by those who master excellently more than one domain. 
The double invention by the same person of the Hypertext Markup Language (HTML) and of the Hypertext Transport Protocol (HTTP), two designs that fit perfectly with each other, is an illustration that will mark the history of our society.

- Is there a difference between web and Internet?

- We make a slight distinction between the Web and the Internet. And CERN  played  a major role in both.

  • The internet is the underlying infrastructure, like the road network in a country made of round-abouts (in the Internet, the routers) and roads (in the internets, data links). It uses the IP technology.
  • The Web is one out of several applications (services) which make use of the infrastructure (like a bus service, or the postal which make use of the road network).  The Web is a way of using the Internet. Another application is the email service, or the Skype service.

Tim Berners-Lee invented the Web. I and my networking colleagues helped developing the Internet infrastructure.

That being said, the web, this way of using the Internet, is today merged with the network itself in the general public language. Web and the Net are become synonymous. This distinction may even look pedantic. On the bottom line … the general public may be right: the Internet has possibly simply become the Web.

François Flückiger

Francois Flückiger is one of the founders RIPE,  the nonprofit organization that conducts the technical coordination of the infrastructure of the Internet. In 1992, he contributed to the creation of the pan-European Internet backbone, Ebone, by drafting the Memorandum of Understanding which laid down its basic principles. The same year Francois Flückiger became a founding member of the Internet Society (ISOC) of the European Organization for Nuclear Research (CERN). Flückiger also created cartoons exemplifying the ineffectiveness of battling against the Internet. A graduate of the Ecole Supérieure d'Electricité, Flückiger holds an MBA from the Enterprise Administration Institute in Paris. He is a member of the ISOC Advisory Council and of the W3C Advisory Committee, a lecturer at the University of Geneva and the author of the textbook "Understanding Networked Multimedia” and more than 80 articles. Today, he is CERN’s Knowledge Transfer Officer for Information Technologies and the Director of its School of Computing. At CERN his responsibilities have included the management of its World Wide Web team after the departure of Web inventor Tim Berners-Lee.

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