Today he’s lionized for making the World Wide Web possible. He remains committed to openness and empowering everyday Internet users. He recently embarked on a new professional journey as a startup CTO. But long before all that, Tim Berners-Lee was just like a lot of other B2B professionals, just trying to have his idea get the green light from his boss.
Speaking at OpenText’s Enterprise World customer conference last week, Berners-Lee said more attention needed to be paid to issues of privacy, security and other challenges that make using the Web difficult for everyday people. These are, he admitted, issues he never would have contemplated back when he first had the notion of joining hypertext to the Internet back in the late 1980s.
Berners-Lee was devised what became the World Wide Web while working at CERN, the European Organization for Nuclear Research. It was not, however an official assignment but the kind of proposal that had to be sketched out and pitched in a memo to his manager before he would be allowed to devote business hours to it. The process sounded like a far cry from organizations today who talk about actively encouraging breakthrough thinking as part of their culture or a formal innovation program.
“Unfortunately after I gave it to him, just at that point, apart from all the other reasons not to give me time, he was diagnosed with cancer,” Berners-Lee recalled. “In the end he did, in fact, find me spare time do it, but it was all done quietly, low-profile.”
Berners-Lee’s ability to develop the Web was also the indirect result of another common scenario within B2B organizations: a quest to drive a greater return on investment (ROI) from existing tools. CERN had already acquired the NeXT cube, for instance, but primarily to evaluate its capabilities.
“They wanted to see if it was any good as a development platform. So (my manager) said, ‘Rather than develop some random application, why don’t you do that hypertext thing you’re always talking about?” he said, noting that his manager’s papers later showed that he had described Berners-Lee’s Web proposal as “vague but exciting.”
Finally, CERN followed in the footsteps of other B2B firms in a third way by giving Berners-Lee a sharp deadline. All work on the software had to be wrapped up in a couple of months, which he said the NeXT computer allowed him to do.
“It was a great machine but priced a bit high, and of the million of innovations in it, not all of them worked,” he said.
In his current role as CTO of Inrupt, Berners-Lee is continuing to try breaking new ground with Solid, a platform for creating applications that will give Web users more control over how their data is stored and used by third parties. This mission has become critically important, Berners-Lee added, and is often overlooked amid other kinds of innovation.
“Every time we make the Web better, we increase the digital divide,” he said. “We’ve lost the spirit that everyone is creating this together. We have to get that back.”
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