Consortium team are the real People of the Year







I was dismayed when, late last year amid the usual hoopla, editors of Time magazine
picked Bill Clinton and Ken Starr as men of the year. I guess if the objective is to be
controversial and peddle a lot of magazines, Bill and Ken form an unbeatable pair of cover
boys.


Still, the idea of a person-of-the-year effort got me to thinking. There’s more to
life than politics. Those of us in information technology have real luminaries whose
research has enabled profound changes. Their contributions are often overlooked by a mass
media that seems to be mainly concerned with politics and entertainment, but that
doesn’t make these people any less newsworthy to our own world.


My nominations for people of the year would be Tim Berners-Lee and his brilliant team
of technologists at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology’s World Wide Web
Consortium. Team Berners-Lee—or TBL as insiders call it—has made it possible for
Netscape Communications Corp., Microsoft Corp., Sun Microsystems Inc., IBM Corp. and
others to make millions via Internet technologies. That’s not to mention Web
entrepreneurs with ballooning stock prices.


Yet TBL has labored in relative obscurity for relatively little financial gain. What
has TBL done that is so noteworthy, yet not newsworthy? The consortium developed the
methodology allowing us to integrate all human knowledge.


When the 1990s are history, Clinton and Starr will join Andrew Johnson and Thaddeus
Stevens as footnotes in high school social studies books.


On the other hand, TBL will be ranked with Gutenberg, Einstein and the Wright brothers.


Berners-Lee himself would be the first to dismiss this judgment as overblown. He would
rightly point to the simplicity of his work. High school kids have written books making
important extensions of the work of the W3C. Berners-Lee would correctly note that the
bulk of the work has been done by hundreds of technologists who have taken a handful of
concepts in myriad, unforeseen directions. But his modesty only enhances his stature and
worthiness.


Nevertheless, I suspect that he would demur at the publicity, seeing it as a
distraction, even a potential threat, to consortium efforts to harmonize Web technologies.


The consortium works behind the scenes where the best and brightest of competing
vendors can reach agreement on what is and is not part of the Web.


Every day, customers and developers are creating new Web functionality. Each of these
innovations needs to be evaluated, codified and integrated into the various Web
technologies. Otherwise, the goose that is laying the golden eggs will be torn apart in a
frenzy of competition and incompatibility.


Washington is a town where name-dropping is an art form. Despite having worked in and
around the Beltway my entire adult life, I’m only a wannabe when it comes to
name-dropping. I’ve never seen in person, much less talked to, Clinton or Starr. But
I vividly recall listening to Berners-Lee and colleagues Dave Crocker and Ned Freed
chatting about applying Web technologies to e-mail.


The author of numerous Internet Engineering Task Force standards, Crocker wrote the
standard for Multipurpose Internet Mail Extensions, which TBL used to tag and bag the Web
page. Freed is a principal contributor to e-mail standards.


Although much of his discussion was sufficiently technical to go way over my head, it
was a privilege to listen to three computer scientists discuss how to change the course of
human events.


It’s funny how profound changes are the result of seemingly small technological
milestones. For example, among several of the ideas Berners-Lee, Crocker and Freed
presented that have since come to pass is this: E-mail software now sends and receives
messages written in Hypertext Markup Language, tying personal communications to the Web
almost seamlessly.


If I were giving out a Nobel Prize for computer science, Tim Berners-Lee would be at
least a three-time winner. He has an uncanny knack for pulling consensus out of chaos.


Like Einstein, he simply puts the contributions of other talented scientists into a
usable theoretical framework. Just as the Wright brothers made metal tubing, canvas, wood
struts and a primitive engine fly, TBL made a whole new concept of Internet communication
tangible.


Berners-Lee is someone worthy of respect, recognition and accolades.  


Walter R. Houser, who has more than two decades of experience in federal
information management, is webmaster for a Cabinet agency. His own Web home page is at http://www.cpcug.org/user/houser.

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