Tim Berners-Lee created the web in the early 1990s as a collaborative tool. However, this early idea was overshadowed by read-only web browsers that were better suited for information consumption than than cooperation.
Since then, Web2 has delivered us applications, mobile, and the cloud. However, for security considerations, data and authentication were tightly tied to the apps. As a result, the Web2 period was defined by a few large corporations that used our data to bind us to their platforms.
Now Berners-Lee is working on a new data-sharing standard called Solid that could help deliver on the initial vision, and a company, Inrupt, to help commercialize this vision.
He cautions that this new Web 3.0 vision for giving back control of our data differs wildly from current Web3 efforts built on less efficient blockchains.
Core features of Solid include support for the following:
- Global single sign-on.
- Global access control.
- Universal API centered around people instead of apps.
Berners-Lee stated that he understood the web would be significant from the start. “I wanted it to be a read-write web right away,” he explained. “In 1990, I hoped to be able to communicate with it and perform GitHub-like things for my CERN software team.”
CERN had roughly 13 theoretical physicists at the time, with the remainder of the crew being engineers. Berners-Lee looked on ways to make it easier for teams from various offices to collaborate. “They had to communicate over the internet, which was just recently becoming politically kosher to utilize in projects,” he explained.
On a powerful NeXT Workstation, the first browser-editor was created. People might create links and upload content to websites.
“Everybody in the team is in an equilibrium knowledge-wise, where this bit of web represents all of the work they have done,” he said.
Sidelined by Web 1.0
But this initial vision was sidelined by the massive popularity of less-capable browsers that could run on PCs and Macs, such as Mozilla, Netscape and Microsoft Internet Explorer.
“We did not actually get that [vision] because it took off as a publishing medium,” Berners-Lee said.
They also ran into other challenges in extending the work at CERN more broadly. While some of the collaborative capabilities worked in a tightly controlled environment like CERN, more work was required on single sign-on, authorization and fine-grained data-sharing to scale these ideas.
Berners-Lee was also disappointed at the content-generation tools used to create websites. His first read-write browser took a WYSIWYG (what you see is what you get) approach, whereas other HTML editors designed for publishing required a complex process of nesting labels more akin to programming than editing a collaborative document.
“It was amazing to find that people would write HTML files by hand,” he said. “I was not prepared to do that. I wanted to highlight something, make a link and save it back. I assumed that by 1989 this would be easy since we had Microsoft Word already doing this.”
Laying the foundation
Berners-Lee continued this research over the intervening years in the UK and later at MIT. He also incorporated these improvements into the Solid standard and helped found Inrupt to scale the adoption of the new infrastructure.
Berners-Lee has been using Solid to capture data from all aspects of his life in an editable and shareable way. He stores his bank statements, documents, photos, music, IoT data and exercise data on a Solid storage service on his Mac Mini. He’s most excited about how it could improve collaboration between individuals, the businesses they trust and governments — safely and securely.
Solid already supports government services, privacy-preserving medical research and new home improvement services that combine product manuals and energy management. This is just the beginning.
Eventually, he believes Solid could have as profound, if not a more significant, impact as the first version of the web.
“We should have called the first one Web 0.3, and then we would be in a good place now,” he said.
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