Missing the point

I’m trying to keep commentary in Restoring the Balance at a minimum, so occasionally when a story jumps out at me I’ll be posting it here. A quote in World Wide Web Inventor Voted 2004 Greatest Briton not only jumped out at me but started dancing around singing “I don’t understand the web! I don’t understand the web!”

Tim Berners-Lee, the man who invented and then gave away the World Wide Web, was picked on Thursday as epitomizing the Greatest of Britishness — a quality finance minister Gordon Brown said was unique.

His selfless act added to modesty and ingenuity were deemed by a panel of judges to make Berners-Lee the Greatest Briton of 2004 in the first of what organizers said they hoped would become an annual event.

Noted historian and panel member David Starkey said Berners-Lee’s double acts of ingenuity and charity made him an automatic choice.

“He chose not to commercially exploit his invention. He gave it away almost willfully. If he had fully exploited it, he would make Bill Gates look like a pauper today,” he told Reuters.

I’m going to type this very slowly, so please read it slowly and make sure you understand.

The web wasn’t a success in spite of Berners-Lee’s giving it away. It was a success because of Sir Tim’s giving it away.

I’m not saying he isn’t a great Briton, or a great man, or that he didn’t do something great. On the contrary, I have nothing but esteem for the man. However, if he had built the web as a closed, commercial system it would be at best about as popular as Prodigy, Compuserve or AOL was then. Popular for the time, but nothing compared with how popular an open system is.
[Update: I found this on Sir Tim Beners-Lee’s FAQ:

Q: Do you have had mixed emotions about “cashing in” on the Web?

A: Not really.  It was simply that had the technology been proprietary, and in my total control, it would probably not have taken off.  The decision to make the Web an open system was necessary for it to be universal.  You can’t propose that something be a universal space and at the same time keep control of it.

Obviously he isn’t the one missing the point.]

6 thoughts on “Missing the point

  1. Yeah, that’s been bothering me too. There were plenty of hypertext systems back then (AOL/QLink, Prodigy, Compuserve, Delphi); some were even somewhat open (like Gopher). Berners-Lee just decided on a very small subset of SGML to use for formatting and linking documents, and a very simple protocol for retrieving those documents – granted, it took quite a bit of insight to do it in such a smiple way, but it was the openness which was the real killer feature.

  2. This reminds me of my old boss, who wanted to buy stocks of "internet,&quot becuase he was sure they’d go through the roof. I’ve heard others joke about the same thing. Maybe he heard the joke and thought it was a hot tip. Anyway, he was half correct.
    I think you’re point is dead on. Berners-Lee wanted a simple and open method of communication. To think that keeping a patent on it and using it for profit would have made him richer than Bill Gates shows about as much grasp on reality as my old boss. Great ideas aren’t for the purpose making money, they are simply for improving life.

  3. Jason – I don’t think that making the web open was necessarily an altruistic act. It probably was, but if Berners-Lee were acting selfishly he would have come to to the same conclusion.
    If the web were closed, Sir Tim would likely have a failed startup from the early 90’s to show for it. Because he opened it up, he made something valuable and is making a living with the WWW.
    Obviously mankind benefitted from it, but opening up doesn’t need to be charity. Look at all the companies that contribute to open source software, or Magnatune records.

  4. George – I agree, and I think I probably just wasn’t being clear. I feel that Berners-Lee wanting an open system was no more altruistic than my having my phone number published or my typing in my web address in the field above. It was simply that he wanted something he could use for communications purposes. He may very well had the intent to give away the markup rules only to later make money off of something that made use of them (think Adobe and .pdf or Gillette and razors). I’m sure the fame hasn’t hurt his bank account. Anyway, I think we’re on the same track here, even if I’m not conveying my meaning so clearly.
    I mainly just wanted to make a comment on how some people view everything with dollar-sign eyes. They don’t grasp that sometimes things might be done for other reasons, such as making communications with friends and colleagues a little more convenient, and without any immediate monetary benefit. There are people, who without evidence of personal profit, will not recognize anything as worthwhile. I also wasn’t meaning to imply that WWW and the internet are interchangeable, as they most certainly are not.

  5. Jason, you’re absolutely right that some people are unable to see beyond the business models they’ve become used to. The thing is that, given the choice, people love openness and will pay for it.
    Look at $20 DVDs against $5 DivX disposable DVDs. If the DivX discs had been around first the industry would have thought anyone proposing a less restrictive format was insane. The DVD proponent would be accused of wanting to run the business like a charity and giving away its sales. Meanwhile, they’d be missing out on millions of dollars in sales to people who wanted the less restrictive format and not even knowing it.

  6. thought it was a cute idea to write you on fat city. saw your site and reviewed some of the comments. they do not seem to be too bright.

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