January 2011

Volume 26 Number 01

Editor's Note - Change the World!

By Keith Ward | January 2011

Keith WardThe Internet, of course, has no end. But it did have a beginning. Nov. 12, 1990, was when Tim Berners-Lee detailed his plan for a “Hypertext Project” (w3.org/Proposal.html). For geeks like me, reading it can raise goosebumps. In a way, it’s like reading the U.S. Constitution—this document established a framework for a new way of doing things.

Back in 1989-1990, Berners-Lee was looking for a way to more easily share information around the massive physics lab at which he worked. The idea was actually pretty basic, but of course what came out of it is not.

Here’s a pretty nice summation of their plan. How can you not get excited while reading this description?

“HyperText is a way to link and access information of various kinds as a web of nodes in which the user can browse at will. Potentially, HyperText provides a single user-interface to many large classes of stored information such as reports, notes, data-bases, computer documentation and on-line systems help.”

Being, among other things, a first-class software engineer, Berners-Lee had a specific problem in mind that he wanted to solve:

“There is a potential large benefit from the integration of a variety of systems in a way which allows a user to follow links pointing from one piece of information to another one. This forming of a web of information nodes rather than a hierarchical tree or an ordered list is the basic concept behind HyperText.”

Systems integration never sounded so simple, did it? The key component to tie the information together is described here:

“A program which provides access to the hypertext world we call a browser. When starting a hypertext browser on your workstation, you will first be presented with a hypertext page which is personal to you: your personal notes, if you like. A hypertext page has pieces of text which refer to other texts. Such references are highlighted and can be selected with a mouse (on dumb terminals, they would appear in a numbered list and selection would be done by entering a number). When you select a reference, the browser presents you with the text which is referenced: you have made the browser follow a hypertext link. That text itself has links to other texts and so on.”

And here, in a nutshell, is why it’s so cool:

“The texts are linked together in a way that one can go from one concept to another to find the information one wants. The network of links is called a web. The web need not be hierarchical, and therefore it is not necessary to ‘climb up a tree’ all the way again before you can go down to a different but related subject.”

And the rest is history. The point of our little trip in Doc Brown’s DeLorean back to the Web’s beginning: You never know where an idea will lead. But if you don’t break through boundaries, don’t ask “What if ...?” enough, don’t aspire to make a bigger impact, you surely won’t.

It’s now 2011. The year ahead looms. Will you be content with doing the same old thing you’ve been doing for weeks, months or years? Or will you invent something? You can’t invent the Web, but you can invent a way to do it better. Can you make the world better with your software, even if it’s only a tiny little corner of it? In other words—are you satisfied, or are you wanting to do more than you’ve done?

Stay thirsty, my friends.