Plea for Web continuity

Tomorrow provides a chance to hear the man who dreamed up the World Wide Web, Tim Berners-Lee, at the Asian debut of the 10th World Wide Web Conference (WWW10).
Organised by the Web’s grassroots standards body – the World Wide Web Consortium (W3C), the conference is an annual meeting of minds about Web technology and standards.

Mr Berners-Lee said that he intended to use the event to talk about plans for the Semantic Web – the second Internet revolution – which would enable software to understand Web content.
In the past, data formats have become useless after a short time, but with the correct understanding, data is usable indefinitely.
He said not only did society need the persistence of Web information to support outdated products, the data allowed historians to keep track and makes politicians accountable for their promises.

But when people linked to a site today, they did not know whether it would still be accessible in five years, he said from his home in the United States.
Mr Berners-Lee, who directs the W3C, is worried about servers keeping old addresses.
“It is a question of organisations really committing to being responsible,” he said.

Looking back more than a decade, some of the early Web information had been lost and Mr Berners-Lee had to explain to people how rudimentary it was.
“To have some persistence of that (data) is important for lots of different reasons,” he said.
Tomorrow, Mr Berners-Lee – famed for the development of hypertext mark-up language (HTML), the universal resource locator (URL) and the first Web browser – will speak on a variety of issues.

He is excited about pending developments including the Semantic Web, a way people could write programs to search databases and draw conclusions or create applications to ask computers to bill companies automatically.

Machines now scan a Web page but cannot pick out which number signifies a price, a stock quote or the temperature because the data is meaningless to them.
Also, Web services are a concept which use the Semantic Web to allow machines have conversation over interactive sites. Instead of asking surfers to fill out boring forms with name, address, credit-card information and so on to buy a book, programmers will be able to write code that lets a PC scan sites for the cheapest copy and buy it.

“I think it will be two years to three years before it really starts to spread across electronic commerce and people looking back at it say: ‘Oh, that was the Semantic Web revolution’,” said Mr Berners-Lee, who works at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology.
Another exciting development was voice technology allowing for e-mails to be picked up or sites browsed without a screen.
“In the next year or two, I would expect to see voice applications which will take you through e-mail,” he said.

But the Semantic Web was a lower hurdle because information would be put out in a form that was easier for machines to process, he said.
The Web standards group is working on ways to make it easy to access the same information from computers and hand-held devices, which some have said will lift Asian Internet penetration past US levels.

Mr Berners-Lee believes portable units will be a huge force in the future, but big screens – such as high-resolution televisions and computers – will not go away.
Despite his technology background, Mr Berners-Lee worries about the Web’s social impact. The Web, despite its promise, was not a magic bullet for the digital divide, he said. Internet access added one more item to the list of advantages, such as health care and clean water, enjoyed by wealthy nations.
“I think the richer countries have a duty to help the poor countries get Internet access as well as the other things,” he said.
But at the same time, Web development needs to balance harmony and diversity.

“The diversity of cultures in this world is really important. It’s the richness that we have which, in fact, will save us from being caught up in one big idea.”
For example, if a problem arises that stumps one culture, another might have the perspective to solve it. Some cultures tended to try to control the dissemination of information via the Web before realising it did not unseat old values or remove the need for government.

“They see it as a potential threat because it is a new medium that might upset the way things work, but then it, in fact, opens the discussion,” Mr Berners -Lee said.
About 1,100 people are expected to attend tomorrow’s conference. Organisers have attempted to give it an Asian flavour with the emphasis on regional speakers and issues.