Network: Keeping watch over the Web

As chairman of the World Wide Web Consortium, it's Jean-Francois Abramatic's task to keep the information superhighway running smoothly. His ambition? To win over the 98 per cent of the world which is not yet online.

Although the Web sometimes appears to be a vast amalgam of pictures and words with no beginning and no end, there is order in the heart of chaos. The World Wide Web Consortium (W3C), an international group of academics and industry types, has spent the last five years working on the mechanics of the Web, figuring out how to keep the mass of developing technology humming along.

Jean-Francois Abramatic, chairman of the W3C, says that the biggest hurdle his group of research scientists, engineers and marketeers have to cope with is making sure that new technologies which advance the capabilities of the Web function with all of the old technologies. "The Web became very popular while it was almost still a prototype," he says. "There's been a discrepancy between the success, with millions of people using it, and the components that were built. The consortium is here to evolve the Web, to add new features, while keeping interoperability. We can't go back to people and say, `Forget your HTML pages, we need to do it all over again'."

The W3C will celebrate its fifth birthday next month, having been founded in October 1994 by Tim Berners-Lee, who is credited with developing the first Web browser while at the European Laboratory for Particle Physics (Cern). Berners-Lee has been depicted as the forgotten hero of the Web. After building his browser and pioneering early Web development, his status as architect of the new medium faded as a group of American college students in Illinois began aggressively distributing and promoting NCSA Mosaic.

Abramatic himself is now rising to fame within the international community of businesses and scientists trying to gain a measure of control of the Web's development. He was recently named one of the 10 most powerful people on the Web.

The consortium he chairs has members from more than 300 companies worldwide. Abramatic and his team of 60 are making a Herculean effort to co-ordinate communication between these members, who often are competing with one another in the cut-throat markets for Web wares.

"W3C is not a physical entity, it's a network," Abramatic says. "There is no headquarters, no big building. When we send press releases, the address is www.w3c.org. It is hosted in America at MIT [Massachusetts Institute of Technology], in Europe by INRIA [the French National Institute for Research in Computer Science and Control], in Asia at Keio University. The goal is to make sure that all the local requirements are taken into account, but not to deliver something that's tooled to a particular environment."

Abramatic says he met Berners-Lee in early 1994. Berners-Lee had come to INRIA, where Abramatic then worked, in search of a particular piece of document management software. The two met over lunch and "after five minutes we were discussing building a consortium".

In July of that year, Berners-Lee was hired by MIT and founded the W3C officially in October. In 1995, Abramatic served as the INRIA representative to the W3C and in 1996 was appointed chairman.

The consortium has tasked itself with evolving the underpinnings of the Web. The platform that has made so many millionaires in the US and carries the hope of a revived economy was never designed to carry the burden which has been placed on it, Abramatic says. Now, the W3C and its members are attempting to build new functions and features without disrupting the top layer of content and commerce.

The current hope for that evolution is XML, or Extensible Markup Language. XML is a high-level language that extends the capabilities of HTML, hypertext mark-up language. With XML, Web designers can make Web pages do more than just display text and graphics, they can do complicated calculations, and have intelligence built in. In HTML, Web designers must use a set of specific tags or commands to performfunctions, but in XML, they can define new functions, and new tags to perform them.

"The role played by XML in the present and future of the Web was envisioned over the last two years," Abramatic said. "But now it has become more and more explicit, and people have used the technology to address serious issues."

The W3C is championing a cause it has labelled "device independence", the theory being that as much as consumers like using the Web from their personal computers, we will be using the Web even more from a variety of new devices: mobile phones, hand-held computers, TVs, car stereos. With the unlimited possibilities promised by XML, the future of the Web is limited only by the imagination of its architects.

But while Tim Berners-Lee and his crew of mad scientists were envisioning the structure this new language would have, Abramatic and his teams of diplomats were bringing together two diverse groups that would make XML a reality: designers of structured document software and the big business of databases. Without the blessing of both industries, XML's usefulness would have been limited.

With many interested parties on all sides, Abramatic said the friction can sometimes be palpable. In August of 1998, as the consortium struggled to finalise the draft of the XML standard, his attendance was required at the final meeting, to keep things polite. "There is so much pressure from the market," he says. "With the success of XML comes a lot of tension."

Berners-Lee's vision of a virtual meeting place where great minds could advance and develop the architecture of the Web is still topmost in the mission of the consortium. But as the Web has grown, and as interested parties started to number in the hundreds, co-ordinating those efforts has turned into a logistical nightmare. "[We are] a meeting place where topics and people which would not have met otherwise can come together, and recognise that the meeting is handled properly, and that content and agenda will be organised. We decide who can talk and what will be the consequences," Abramatic says.

Now, the W3C has gone from being a virtual body with satellites in several countries to opening offices around the world. As well as here in Britain, there are now offices in Germany, Sweden, the Netherlands, Greece, Italy, Hong Kong, Taiwan, Morocco and Tunisia. With only 60 full-time staff, the group co-ordinates work on 40 different Web standards such as privacy, mobile access, and television and the Web. The W3C works closely with its sister organisation, the Internet Engineering Task Force, and is frequently called upon to advise governments on policy making for the Web. "We as an organisation have to deal with a large variety of other evolving bodies," Abramatic says. "Some of them are governments."

The group also sticks closely to its mission, which is not only to advance the cause of the Web and baby-sit big business as it argues with itself, but to promote the greater use of the Web by the general public. "We have today about 2 per cent of the world population using the Web," Abramatic says. "We have 98 per cent to go."

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