The interview Tim Berners-Lee gave last year (IBM developerWorks) was widely reported. I blogged it, Web 2.0: 'what the Web was supposed to be all along', in August 2006, shortly after it was posted. What most struck me about it was expressed, pithily and succinctly, by Sir Tim in a remark about the web made on an earlier occasion — the MIT Technology Review Emerging Technologies conference in 2005, as reported by Andy Carvin in Tim Berners-Lee: Weaving a Semantic Web:
The original thing I wanted to do was to make it a collaborative medium, a place where we (could) all meet and read and write.
At the MIT conference, Sir Tim talked about Marc Andreessen and the emergence of a commercial web browser. In the IBM developerWorks interview he said of his web browser,
… the original World Wide Web browser of course was also an editor. … I really wanted it to be a collaborative authoring tool. And for some reason it didn't really take off that way. And we could discuss for ages why it didn't. … I've always felt frustrated that most people don't...didn't have write access.
Just a couple of weeks ago, I came across a 1997 Time magazine piece about Tim Berners-Lee by Robert Wright, The Man Who Invented The Web:
Berners-Lee considers the Web an example of how early, random forces are amplified through time. "It was an accident of fate that all the first [commercially successful] programs were browsers and not editors," he says. To see how different things might have been, you have to watch him gleefully wield his original browser--a browser and editor--at his desk. He's working on one document and--flash--in a few user-friendly keystrokes, it is linked to another document. One document can be on his computer "desktop"--for his eyes only--another can be accessible to his colleagues or his family, and another can be public. A seamless neural connection between his brain and the social brain. … he is grateful that Andreessen co-authored a user-friendly browser and thus brought the Web to the public, even if in non-ideal form. Yet it can't have been easy watching Andreessen become the darling of the media after writing a third-generation browser that lacked basic editing capabilities.
Now the web is 'finally starting' to follow 'the technological lines he envisioned (… as software evolves)':
Berners-Lee, standing at a blackboard, draws a graph, as he's prone to do. It arrays social groups by size. Families, workplace groups, schools, towns, companies, the nation, the planet. The Web could in theory make things work smoothly at all of these levels, as well as between them. That, indeed, was the original idea--an organic expanse of collaboration. … "At the end of the day, it's up to us: how we actually react, and how we teach our children, and the values we instill." He points back to the graph. "I believe we and our children should be active at all points along this."
So, a fundamental deviation from Tim Berners-Lee's vision for the web occurred in the form taken by popular, commercially viable web browsers. In Dave Winer's view, this early deviation was heavily reinforced by Microsoft:
Since the re-rollout of Office in 1996, it's been really clear why Microsoft was so hell-bent at first owning and then suffocating the web browser, along with the web. … Because for them, writing was not something that would be done in a web browser, if they improved their browser as a writing tool, that would be the end of Word, and with it, a big reason for using Office. … If instead, Microsoft had embraced the web, and with it the shift in their product line and economics, in 1995, we'd have a much richer writing environment today. Blogging would have happened sooner, in a bigger way. It's hard to imagine how much the sins of Microsoft cost all of us.
What a tangled thing technology is (Berners-Lee — 'The Web is a tangle, your life is a tangle – get used to it'). I hope very much that Ted Nelson has brought Geeks Bearing Gifts nearer to publication. Meanwhile, with the Time 1997 piece a little bit more of the road map of the web's evolution became clearer to me. The read-only nature of the successful web browsers that came after Sir Tim's explains a great deal about how many an adult of a certain age perceives the web. I think of John Naughton's sketch of how today's 22 year-old conceives of the web, and of Andrew McAfee's comment,
Evidence is mounting that younger people don’t think of the Internet as a collection of content that other people produce for them to consume. Instead, they think about it as a dynamic, emergent, and peer-produced repository to which they’re eager to contribute.
And I think back to Bradley Horowitz's talk at the London March 2007 FOWA meeting, which I wrote about here — and Twittered at the time: 'from a hierarchy of creator(s)/synthesisers/consumers (1:10:100) towards a web world of participation (100)'.
If the history of the web browser had itself been different, would we have suffered the misalignment of perceptions about the essentially social, creative nature of the web ('I believe we and our children should be active at all points along this') that often exists now between today's different generations of users?
Well, and in any case, 'The Web is no longer the future of computing, computing is now about the Web' (Dare Obasanjo).
Footnote. Two other things from the Time piece (I pass them on as given there): ' … contrary to the mythology surrounding Netscape, it was he [Berners-Lee], not Andreessen, who wrote the first "graphical user interface" Web browser. (Nor was Andreessen's browser the first to feature pictures; but it was the first to put pictures and text in the same window, a key innovation.)'
Wikipedia's timeline of web browsers is available here.