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Last Updated: Monday, 22 May 2006, 08:05 GMT 09:05 UK
Building on the future of the web
Ahead of the world's largest web conference, computer scientist Dave De Roure reflects on how far the web has come.

Computer keyboard and monitor
The web is no longer just an academic tool
Twelve years ago I sat on a grassy knoll in Geneva and listened to web pioneer, Tim Berners-Lee, predict the future.

He outlined his vision for the world wide web - a vast repository of infinitely searchable and linked information.

This week, along with more than 1,000 other technophiles, I will be getting another glimpse into the future at the WWW2006 meeting being held in Edinburgh from Tuesday 23 to Friday 26.

The four-day event brings together the brightest minds and the broadest thinkers from all over the globe to discuss, debate and explore the future direction of the web.

If you want to keep ahead of emerging technologies and innovation on the net, Edinburgh is the place to be.

Grass roots

The first of these meetings was held in 1994 at Cern in Switzerland, the world's largest particle physics laboratory and the birthplace of the web.

Then, although the academic community had been using a version of the web for years, the technology was just taking its first faltering steps in front of the public's gaze.

Dave De Roure (Copyright Russell Sach)
The power of the web fundamentally stems from joining things up and sharing
Dave De Roure
Back then we sat on the grass at Cern and listened to Tim Berners-Lee talk about HTML - Hypertext Markup Language - the lingua franca of the web.

It was invented by Tim to allow scientists to cross reference scientific papers but now forms the building blocks of millions of webpages.

In 2006 we still have the developers - the "nuts and bolts of the community" as one of my colleagues describes them. But the web has moved on and is now so much a part of our daily lives that the conference attracts people from all walks of life.

The conference is also an important public engagement for the World Wide Web Consortium (W3C), the standards body with the purpose of leading the web to its full potential.

It's their job to develop and agree the standards and protocols that underpin the web and transform the billions of lines of computer code into the intuitive web pages we use every day.

Sir Tim, who received a knighthood in 2004 for his invention, will again be addressing the conference.

Joined up thinking

The event is more than just a gathering of minds. Real decisions about how the web will be used in the future will be made in Edinburgh.

Tim Berners-Lee, inventor of the web
Tim Berners-Lee was given a knighthood for his invention
One of the big areas of interest is the semantic web, a project that aims to bring meaning to the millions of pages of text on the web.

It is not just a philosophical concept, but a real attempt to allow computers to "understand" words rather than just displaying them.

The semantic web will start to link all sorts of information - bank statements, photographs, diary appointments, retail information - and allow it to be processed automatically, to bring greater meaning.

Intriguingly, this information can also be physical things, people and places, so the real world becomes part of the linked up world of the web.

This bridge between the virtual and physical worlds continues to become narrower with the mobile revolution and the web's potential to connect billions of mobile devices across the world.

Link this with the semantic web and you have a powerful tool to search your immediate surroundings.

Visit a semantic web browser on your mobile phone, key in a search for "chemist selling paracetamol" and you will find the pharmacy closest to you, that is open and selling the cheapest pain relief.

Social network

Although some of the technical underpinnings of the semantic web are still a few years off, other changes to how we use the web, that have already occurred, will also be discussed at the event.

One of the hot topics will be how people use and contribute to the web.

Back in 1994 people were beginning to use web browsers but significantly, and perhaps unexpectedly at that moment, people started publishing web content too.

Lady using a laptop in an airport
The web can now be accessed almost anywhere

The web changed from a tool for disseminating information to a place where anyone could publish almost anything.

This phenomenon has been taken even further in the past couple of years with webpages that allow users to contribute to and edit existing sites.

Blogs, wikis, social networking sites like MySpace and file-sharing services have transformed the web into a truly interactive experience.

This social dimension, where people's participation adds value to the web, is proving hugely significant.

But in this world of sharing there are also hazards. As the web becomes even more deeply embedded in our lives, it will become a new battleground and security issues threaten to erode the public's trust in the internet.

It can be used to steal your identity, trick you into buying non-existent goods or, more worrying, to threaten the very infrastructure of our society.

At WWW2006 security experts will be tackling the latest threats to and defences of the world wide web.

The power of the web fundamentally stems from joining things up and sharing, and this is exactly the power of the web conference too.

Predicting the future is never easy but in terms of the web, WWW2006 is the ideal place to begin.

It has come a long way from that grand vision outlined in a field in Switzerland 12 years ago.

David De Roure is a professor at the School of Electronics and Computer Science at the University of Southampton. He is a member of IW3C2 (the International World Wide Web Conference Committee).

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