World Wide Web father Sir Tim Berners-Lee talks censorship, Steve Jobs and the future - part two

Following yesterday's first part of The Drum's interview with father of the World Wide Web, Sir Tim Berners Lee, US editor Noel Young speaks to the technology legend about the importance of former Apple chief Steve Jobs and his thoughts on the future for newspapers.

How important was Steve Jobs to the world wide web?

Sir Tim was in the same room as Steve Jobs once but never got to meet him: “It was an event for people who were developing things for Jobs’s NeXT computer. Jobs got halfway round the room but had to leave. So that was a shame.”

Steve Jobs was into interpersonal, not just personal computing, very much in the Berners-Lee playbook. The NeXT computer was very easy to use and Sir Tim’s 1990 world wide web breakthrough was achieved on it, but in his own words, “without it we would still have got there, maybe four or five months later.”

How bad are monopolies for us all?

They have never been good for progress, says Sir Tim. “For example, in Britain the GPO were the only ones allowed to make telephones. They were worried about people electrocuting themselves. They didn’t have any incentive to design new products, so all the phones looked the same.

“In America it was the same with AT and T. As a result, there was a dampening of innovation because only one company had the funding to do research. When you have a monopoly, competition dies off. But people worried about Netscape, and look what happened.”

Is there still a role for newspapers?

In the view of Sir Tim, newspapers still have a major – though different – role to play in the future world.

“The world’s newspapers have gone through a crisis,” he says.

“Their traditional business model is broken. You have to ask yourself what newspapers did. They went out and discovered news, analysed it then tracked it back.They prepared on a piece of paper a list of things they thought were important. The writing was of sufficient quality for their readership.”

Far from dying, says Sir Tim, “There is a huge need for that function. So whenever someone comes to me, worried about a mass of junk on the web, my answer is ‘you need a newspaper’. You may not get it on paper, but you need its functions. You need editors, writers, researchers.

“People will get used to paying for newspapers

on the web eventually.”

Do you have one more big digital prediction?

Apps are becoming more and more central to the web, says Sir Tim. “Web apps are now becoming very powerful... for example, with a microphone and a camera, you can have video conferencing. A magazine like The Drum will be able to have a video conferencing chatroom.”

Sir Tim founded The World Wide Web Consortium (W3C) in 1994 at the Laboratory of Computer Science at MIT. W3C has three main objectives: “to advance one web that is free and open”, “to expand the web’s capability and robustness” and “to extend the web’s benefits to all people on the planet”.

Despite his achievements, Sir Tim Berners-Lee was not a name on everyone’s lips at the Olympics. Two commentators for the American NBC network, Meredith Vieira and Matt Lauer, admitted they had not heard of the inventor when he appeared in the opening ceremony.

“If you haven’t heard of him, we haven’t either,” they told viewers.

Sir Tim was unfazed. He told the BBC that he didn’t need to be a celebrity. “It doesn’t worry me at all,” he said. “I felt when I was out there pressing the buttons I was doing it for everybody, all the geeks over the years who have collaborated internationally.”

In his book Weaving the Web in 1999, Sir Tim wrote: “People have sometimes asked me whether I am upset that I have not made a lot of money from the web. What does distress me is how important a question it seems to be to some. This happens mostly in America, not Europe.

“What is maddening is the terrible notion that a person’s value depends on how important and financially successful they are, and that is measured in terms of money.”

He told the Financial Times earlier this month that he does not have mixed emotions about his refusal to “cash in” on his invention: “You can’t propose that something be a universal space and at the same time keep control of it.”

But speaking to me, he seems to have mellowed from his earlier view on making money expressed in his book.

“I think I have got a lot more used to the idea, being in America,” he says, “but there is still a difference across the Atlantic.

“A lot of it is personal fulfilment. People enjoy using their skills effectively and it is very reasonable to make money doing that. It’s how you use it. There are some things I would love to have money to do.”

I tell Sir Tim that I had ordered a copy of his book from Amazon but it hadn’t arrived in time so I had to borrow the book from the local library. He delves into a box nearby and pulls out a copy which he signs with a flourish then presents to me.

As we leave the room for a conference room where he is to make his video for the Digital Hall of Fame, Sir Tim apprehends my iPad.

“I think you’ve forgotten to stop the recording,” he says – doing the job for me.

Sir Tim will be announced as one of the inaugural inductees into the BIMA Digital Hall of Fame at London conference ad:tech on Wednesday.

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