SO YOU WANT TO BE A SOFTWARE SUPERSTAR
Beyond the valley of the geeks.
Tim Berners-Lee is a celebrity in spite of himself. Once upon a time he was a
software engineer with a simple goal: to design an online workspace where he
and his physicist colleagues in a Geneva research lab could share data and
ideas. What he invented was so good that people all around the world latched
on to his technology. The result is called the World Wide Web.
His reward? In the six years since he invented it, the Web--with its tens of
thousands of home pages--has mutated into something he doesn't recognize. "The
Web we have now, by comparison to the original conception, is just one great
television channel," says Berners-Lee. "You click, click, click, click. I
don't call that interaction."
What's more, Berners-Lee, 41, now finds himself a media darling. He is hailed
as the "patron saint of the Web." Reporters want to know about his family.
They want to get inside his head.
It is just a bit of a bother to the British-born, Oxford-educated scientist.
All he really wants to do is build the kind of Web he had in mind from the
start. While others reap billions from his creation, he earns a perfectly
adequate paycheck as director of the World Wide Web Consortium, an outfit
headquartered at MIT's Laboratory for Computer Science in Cambridge.
W3C, as the group is called, is funded by some 150 companies, including IBM,
Microsoft, Netscape Communications, and Sun Microsystems. Berners-Lee works
with engineers from those companies and research scientists from universities
around the world. His goals are simple but ambitious. First, he wants to make
the Web a more interactive place, where users from all over can do things like
embed software programs in E-mail and collaborate on projects in real time.
Second, he wants to ensure that no single company owns key technologies that
could make the Web costly or difficult to use.
Of course, the same companies that fund W3C are trying to kill each other in
the marketplace for software that takes advantage of the Internet. Interviewed
at his small office overlooking the MIT campus, Berners-Lee allows that he
has dealt with this kind of conflict before: "I was approached by several
major software companies that wanted me to work for them, but I didn't want
the Web to become proprietary."
Then the slender, fast-talking Brit adds, "If I had a thousand dollars for
every time a reporter asked me if I ever thought about cashing out, I would be
a millionaire." He speaks with not a trace of regret.