20 Years Ago, The Web’s Founders Ask for Funding
Ever wonder who the first web developers were?
Twenty years ago today, when Vanilla Ice’s “Ice Ice Baby” was at the top of the charts, two engineers at CERN’s data handling division wrote the proposal to fund the research project that would give birth to the web.
The proposal, submitted by Tim Berners-Lee and Robert Cailliau on November 12, 1990, laid out what they wanted to build and the resources they’d require. The team wanted to start by building a browser and a server. They estimated development would take six months, and that it would require “four software engineers and a programmer.” There are also some serious hardware requirements totaling tens of thousands of dollars (or is it Swiss francs?), but about a third of the requested funding was dedicated to software user licenses.
Here’s the overview:
The attached document describes in more detail a Hypertext project. 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. It provides a single user-interface to large classes of information (reports, notes, data-bases, computer documentation and on-line help). We propose a simple scheme incorporating servers already available at CERN.
The project has two phases: firstly we make use of existing software and hardware as well as implementing simple browsers for the user’s workstations, based on an analysis of the requirements for information access needs by experiments. Secondly, we extend the application area by also allowing the users to add new material.
Phase one should take 3 months with the full manpower complement, phase two a further 3 months, but this phase is more open-ended, and a review of needs and wishes will be incorporated into it.
The manpower required is 4 software engineers and a programmer, (one of which could be a Fellow). Each person works on a specific part (eg. specific platform support).
Each person will require a state-of-the-art workstation , but there must be one of each of the supported types. These will cost from 10 to 20k each, totaling 50k. In addition, we would like to use commercially available software as much as possible, and foresee an expense of 30k during development for one-user licences [sic], visits to existing installations and consultancy.
We will assume that the project can rely on some computing support at no cost: development file space on existing development systems, installation and system manager support for daemon software.
It’s an extension of Berners-Lee’s original document, written a year earlier, outlining the architecture of a “HyperText” information system.
Looking back now, we can clearly see how the original plan has come to fruition.
From the abstract: “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.”
A single user interface to pull data stored in remote databases — from search engines to Facebook to eBay, this is what we see today. Also, the idea of enabling self-publishing was baked in from the start, a philosophy that has fully matured with tools like blogs, wikis, RSS and social sharing platforms.
Two of the things we love about the web the most weren’t part of the original plan — “sound and video” and other “fancy multimedia facilities” weren’t on the table, nor were full-blown applications that run in browser and allowed users to engage in non-public activities.
As far as we’ve come in twenty years, some of the original problems the WWW project was supposed to fix still exist today.
As Berners-Lee and Cailliau wrote in 1990, “The current incompatibilities of the platforms and tools make it impossible to access existing information through a common interface, leading to waste of time, frustration and obsolete answers to simple data lookup.”
Anyone who works with government data can tell you this is still very much the case. Stacks of data, all of it freely available and certainly vital to the growth of a publicly serviceable web, are stashed inside ancient enterprise-scale systems where it’s inaccessible to simple tools.
These are the problems the Gov 2.0 movement is still trying to solve, with initiatives like increased government transparency, campaign finance transparency, health care reform, and a reboot of our air traffic control system.