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Last Updated: Friday, 26 May 2006, 11:02 GMT 12:02 UK
Wide open future for the web
By Jonathan Fildes
BBC News science and technology reporter in Edinburgh

Web users in Kenya, AP
The web has come a long way since it was conceived

The real and virtual worlds collided this week in Edinburgh, as the past, present and future of the web was debated at the WWW2006 conference.

It brought together 1,200 delegates from 46 countries, and saw FBI agents and suited captains of industry rub shoulders with academics from Togo and British healthcare workers.

Sir David Brown, chairman of Motorola started proceedings with a barrage of staggering figures.

In the mid-1980s, he said, the mobile phone industry estimated that by the year 2000 there would be a market for 900,000 phones worldwide. The mobile phone was going to be a tool for business people.

In fact, when we reached the millennium, the actual market for handsets was more like 450 million - that is 900,000 phones every 19 hours.

"If you're going to be 46,000% wrong, it's best to err on the side of caution," he joked.

Now the mobile phone is morphing into something new and it is thanks to another invention of the 1980s - the World Wide Web.

Going mobile

The drive to push the web on to more than two billion mobile devices was a big theme at this year's conference with researchers and companies keen to replicate the success of the original web.

Tim Berners-Lee, AP

Since last year's conference in Japan, most efforts have focused on drawing up guidelines to standardise the look and feel of mobile web pages.

It is the kind of grunt work that never makes the headlines but will play a key role next time you are in the pub, on your mobile phone, browsing for the time of the last train home.

Practical efforts that have big effects are commonplace at a conference like WWW2006.

There is none of the excess of some of the large technology shows, unless you count the delegates dressed as cowboys and a two-metre tall beaver advertising next year's conference in Banff, Canada.

Instead the main hall is decked out in posters with titles like "Strong authentication in web proxies" and "Graphical representation of RDF queries".

Groups of techies cluster around laptops between attending seminars on everything from internet crime to the latest techniques for processing scientific data.

These are the people that helped create the web and now continue to craft it in new and inventive ways. And there is one techie in particular that draws crowds from around the world.

Tier trouble

Sir Tim Berners-Lee, the inventor of the web, was the undisputed star of the event.

Mobile phones, AFP/Getty

This year he talked about "net neutrality" and his desire to see his creation remain as a single entity.

As IP television and video start to flood the web, some US telecoms companies are starting to think about charging content providers for a priority service.

This two-tier internet could thrust the US into a "dark period," he said, and any attempts to push it through should be resisted.

Sir Tim also talked about his blog. His original concept for the web allowed users to edit and add content to web pages, yet it is only recently that this idea has been realised.

But tools like blogs and wikis are changing the way people work and communicate.

The social wiki at the conference, for example, allowed delegates to post ideas, look for research partners, organise meetings on the hoof or just arrange to meet up for a dram.

Smart web

Sir Tim also outlined his next great vision for the web. Although it has been talked about for five years, the idea of making web pages understandable by machines, known as the semantic web, now seems to be coming together.

Personal semantic software robots that could organise your life by bringing together data from calendars, retail information, health records and even global positioning satellites were discussed without a smirk.

Although ideas like this are still some time off - no one seems to talk about time scales with the semantic web - some of the necessary infrastructure is complete and people are now building the tools to create the vision.

The next step is to get business, academia and millions of web users to buy into the idea.

This may be the biggest hurdle as more and more personal information becomes accessible online.

The semantic web has the potential to drill into this data deeper than ever before and people will have to start taking more seriously the idea of having a life online.

New programmes and methods are being created to keep these issues in check.

But at conferences like WWW2006, the web community can throw caution to the wind and fine tune their grand visions of the future.

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23 May 06 |  Technology
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25 Sep 03 |  Technology
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