IEEE Internet Computing

Interview

Robert Cailliau on the WWW Proposal: "How It Really Happened."

Are you saying the Internet is nothing new? It's the next incarnation of the early century physicists?
It's a similar culture. It's a very similar thing that happened, I think.

The picture that you've painted is that you and Tim made a joint proposal, you built something, you got something much less than what you built out on a line command browser, and then suddenly there was some sort of explosion of interaction and nobody could be in control anymore.
Then, of course, came something that can be viewed either as positive or negative depending on perspective: the release of Mosaic. We had great problems conceptually with Mosaic because it was sort of the Volkswagen Bug of transportation. Everybody can afford it, it takes no time to install, it does something that is new to you, but it's not quite transportation. The analogies are all false, but you see what I mean.

But the VW Bug was very popular.
Right, and so was Mosaic. It was okay, but it was a single window thing. A single window, non-editing thing that got its popularity from two aspects: it was much easier to install than any of the other, better, X Window based browsers that went before it because it came as one big blob for Unix machines. Its second characteristic which was very attractive was that it was close to what people knew: it put the images in line.

I personally didn't want the images in line. It's a nuisance because you can't keep the image in view. For example, when you read a physics paper, you want the diagrams in view while you browse the text. You don't want to lose that image, and you don't want it to scroll out of sight. But all browsers today do that, it's just like a platform-independent presentation of the printed page.

So the cognitive dissonance, the difference between what they already knew and what they were seeing wasn't very big?
Right. This is essentially like saying you stand on top of a mountain, and you want to go down into a certain valley, but everybody is from another valley so they they go down into a valley they recognize. But it's the wrong valley to go into, and once you're in there, it's very difficult to get out.

So we're stuck in this valley.
Well we're getting out of it slowly, I suppose.

And then we have to find a whole other route out of the valley, with SGML or XML or something.
Do you need XML?

Robert CailliauAh, you roll your eyes at XML! I don't know, do you?
Every time I hear extensible something-something-something I get very nervous because it opens the door for incompatibility. It means a version that works differently, which must be because you don't have these-and-these macros or whatever it is that makes it an extension. Yet I have hopes for XML.

Or plug-in.
Plug-ins is another way to do diversification. And okay, great. As long as you keep a common standard it's fine. But if you don't have that — and we don't seem to have that — then what?

So it sounds like you and Tim started off with something really great inNeXTStep, and then something else more primitive took off and exploded with the Internet community. Then in the third phase, Mosaic came along. Yet another simplification; it didn't make use of everything.
Inside Mosaic, for a long time, was the CERN Web program library.

But it didn't make use of everything, right?
Well, the program library didn't have the editable text objects.

But you're saying it was some sort of simplification. It had GIFs in line. What other kinds of simplifications did it have?
It had GIFs in line, but I don't think GIFs in line is a simplification. It's a complication because now you have to have your program do the GIF display, whereas we just used some external application to display the images. But for some reason people cannot get away from this TV paradigm where everything is on the same screen, so everything has to be in the same window. I've seen sites where instead of downloading the video and then using the video player, they insist that you download a plug-in which plays the video inside the window. So you get stuck with all these plug-ins.

It's really hard for people to escape the paradigm of a single window?
That's also defined the success of Windows, Windows '95 and so forth: you don't bring up large numbers of multiple windows. I confess myself that one of the things I had to get used to when I first worked with NeXTStep was the large number of independent windows all over the place. You need a fair amount of screen real estate to accommodate them, but once you get used to it it's actually much better.

Do you think this is something that our children will accommodate very easily?
No, I don't think so.

Why not?
Because a large fraction of the population is never going to be able to handle the essence of computing.

Don't you think that's an older portion of the populace? I don't think my daughter will need a network computer, but my mother needs a network computer.
No. I think it has nothing to do with age. Let's say the current percentages of the people that can and can't handle them is different from the steady state distribution because a larger percentage of the younger generation will be able to handle them. My fundamental thesis is still that even in the steady state there will always be a segment of the population that will not be able to handle them — will not want to handle them. And the example is all around you here.

Don't think America invented the network computer. We have had them here in France for 15 years. They're called Minitels. To all intents and purposes, it is a network computer, and it has not spread beyond 50% of the households.

Even when it was given away for free?
It still is given away. You can still go to France Telecom and pick up the basic model for free (although you won't get a telephone book). The point is half of the households don't get one.

Because?
Because they're not interested, or they can't handle it. It is too complicated an object with too many buttons on it. There's a keyboard there, you know...

So you're saying this has something to do with people not being able to program the clock on their VCRs?
Exactly. Yes.

But a true, say, e-mail appliance, wouldn't have all these buttons.
It would have a keyboard.

Yes, it would have a keyboard, but people who can type can handle a keyboard. I'm thinking about my mother. She is a journalist, and she can type. She just doesn't want to deal with the computer that she has to install software for, or that she has to reboot. She wants an appliance that is failsafe.
Even the appliance will run complicated Java applets with interactions where you have to respond, and that's where it comes back in. Maybe you don't have to handle the configuration in your network computer, but you have to learn this Java applet which is complex, complicated, different from whatever you saw before. You have to declare yourself, you have to get your preferences in, you have to configure it.

Am I hearing that you also don't approve of Java applets?
No, I didn't say that. I'm saying that with Java programming the interface has come back. The diversity of applets is akin to configuring my computer. Instead of having one interface to HTML pages, I will have an interface to the bank and a different one for the grocery store and one for.... 

This is a pain, isn't it?
Well, it won't go away. But people will not be able to handle them. I'll bet you right now that there will be an irreducible percentage of the population that will not be able to handle network computers — with any sort of interaction with a complicated, abstract thing. They just will not handle it. And the proof is in the Minitel. You don't boot a Minitel; you don't configure it; but it is the interface between all these different servers. If you go to a particular server, it's different from this other server, and many people just won't handle it.

So what you're saying is that people who can't do tax forms can't handle even forms on the Web.
It's the same complication.

There's a cut right there.
Yes, and I'm not saying that this is 50% of the population.

So all that history aside, now where are you? What do you have to do with the Web now?
Towards the end of 1993 I thought, this is really crazy. There's so much out there, we should have a conference about Web technology. To put it mildly, Tim was not in favor of this idea. In fact, at one point, one of his comments was, "If you want to waste your time on that, go ahead. But I think there are other things to be done." (More on that later.)

However, I thought it was very urgent that we consider this a tool for high energy physics. After all, CERN was paying our salaries.

You mean in '93 it wasn't yet used? In '93 everybody was using it already.
No, no, no. Not everybody.

Well, we were using it in '93.
Yes, sure, but you were at a university. SLAC got the first server up in the US on 12 December of 1992, and Commerce Net was 1994.

Anyway, the HEP Institutes were wondering what was going to happen, and if CERN was taking it seriously. But the Web was never an official project with CERN. In the list of official projects you will see all kinds of physics experiments, but you will not see the Web. Now I'm talking about 1992, 1993.

"It's constantly a bloody rush with the United States..."

This proposal called the World Wide Web was never officially approved? We all had the impression that this came out of something that was widely used at CERN. What you're telling me is that it was accepted more outside of CERN before it was accepted in CERN?
Not really, because the High Energy Physics Institutes also were worrying very much about whether CERN was going to commit to this and support it.

I was going around trying to push this in early '93. So at one point I called a meeting with division leaders and directors, and said I was planning a trip through the High Energy Physics laboratories to the Hypertext conference in Seattle. I was going to go to FermiLab (Fermi National Accelerator Laboratory), to SLAC, to Los Alamos, and I wanted to know what I could tell these people. Were we going to commit to the Web development and put some manpower and resources other than Tim and me and a student each on it? We're in November 1993 at this point.

So late!
This is how it goes in the place where the thing comes from, and I'm sorry, but this is not unique. Also, this is not commerce, right? Also, we are a physics institute, not a commercial operation.

So we needed to get this out of CERN by either making it a business, which Tim didn't want; by finding a suitable informatics institute to take this over; or by finding European Commission money. In fact, that September I had already concluded with FraunHofer Gesellschaft the first purely Web-based European Commission project.

So the whole rest of the world was in the dark?
No. I'm sorry, but the whole rest of the world you're thinking of is the continental United States. That is a minor fraction of the civilized world. Please put things in perspective. And it's California, probably, you're really thinking of.

No, in Texas also. It was catching on in Austin, Texas, and it was catching on in California.
Yes, yes, we had been in San Antonio, and I had been at the University of Texas to get a demonstration working at the Hypertext conference in 1991. I remember the 1991 conference very well. For a selected part of the academia the Web existed, indeed. And for another selected part of the public in Europe it was there. However, the world at large did not even know about the Internet in 1993. It is not true that the Internet was known by the general public before 1994. Anyway, at CERN I was lobbying very hard inside to get the right resources after I came back from the 1993 Hypertext conference in Seattle where we were not even truly present — I was our sole representative, and we had not submitted a paper for the conference at all. But one-third of the demos were Web-based.

When I came back from that, I thought, "Wow, this subject is big enough to make a conference base." So I announced, 23 hours before NCSA decided to do it, the first international conference on the World Wide Web, to be held in Geneva at CERN in May 1994. Subsequent telephone calls with NCSA sorted out that yes, we would have the first one because we announced it first, we were ready first, and it was only appropriate that we have it first. See, this is constantly a bloody rush with the United States.

We just won't leave you alone.
Not only will you not just leave us alone, you will not stop working. You will not switch off. You will not take holidays. You will not enjoy life. You just work like crazy, and you can put that in your article, if you like. It's very hard competing with you guys. It's impossible.

Because we don't have a life.
Well I didn't say that. You said it. But anyway, I started the Conferences, and it took a lot of time and energy. Together with Joseph Hardin of NCSA we founded the International Conference Committee, which is still going, and of which I'm the current chair. We did the second conference that year in Chicago, and to show how big this Internet hacker crowd was, in May I had 400 people here with another 200 or 300 who couldn't get in, because for security reasons I couldn't fit more in — the restaurant wouldn't take more.

You were turning people away?
Oh, yes. It was totally wild. People were saying, "But I don't need any food. I'll stand in the aisle. I just want to come." Then we had the second in Chicago in October of 1994, and there were 1,300 people. Then in April of 1995 we were at Darmstadt. In fact, the next several conferences were decided at Geneva. It was going to be Chicago, Darmstadt, Boston, and of course, at the same time, I was doing the European Commission project — in '94 also we did the consortium. Then at the end of  '94 CERN decided that we were not going to be the European representative, the European arm, of the consortium, because we were going to do physics. So we transferred everything to INRIA.

So they decided that the tail was wagging the dog?
Well, no, it was just that this was not our main mission. I had actually always argued in that vein: CERN was the logical place for the Web to happen, but not the logical place to keep developing it. And of course, you must not forget that since 1992, in parallel to all that, I was busy with splitting off (with some difficulty) the CERN information from the Web information. I had to make it distinct from what was happening in the Web development part while still providing service to users who didn't care where the technology came from.

Yes, but this happened everywhere.
Sure. And the first day is fine. But after a while you can't allow a mix-up of corporate information and development information any more. It was particularly critical at CERN because it started here. The trouble with the first Web server which you can see in the books is that in their mind it was all mixed up. We were putting up information about CERN as a laboratory mixed with the Web development documentation, and while you can do that at Day One of the Web, once it takes some size, what you put up about CERN is the concern of our press office and our Management. And because we're an international institute, this is particularly important. Also, we had to deal with a total non-approach to the whole issue of publication.

A non-approach?
Today there is a whole history to look at. We had no such thing. It just grew, or exploded in our faces, or whatever you might call it. Anyone who wants to start today can access a vast amount of literature about how to do it and how not to do it from all sorts of cases where things have gone wrong and right and whatever. I was sorting it out from nothing.

Another conflict with the Internet crowd was about access protection. I was losing clients towards the end of '92.

You were losing clients?
Physicists were realizing that anything I put on the server was visible worldwide. Now if physics experiment A is distributing the minutes of its meetings, it doesn't want physics experiment B that is also looking for the Nobel Prize to read them as well, right?

But they're scientists.
There are a lot of things you discuss with your colleagues, and there are a number of things that you don't. So they were holding backon further usage of the Web for what it was really for. They were using it halfway, but not as a collaborative tool, because it was too open. And this was not the idea of putting locks on the Web. I mean, I consider a lock just a signal that says if you go in here...

...you're trespassing.
Yes. You're not respecting the distance that I wish to keep. I am not in favor of all this cryptography stuff, right? I have read comments saying you should use cryptography even on your home computer, because your wife might look at your disk. That's going too far, but at least you put up some signal saying this is private. I am now in the toilet, close the door. But this was not well received in the beginning — not at all.

By the Internet crowd?
By what I call the Internet crowd.

It's funny to hear you talk about "the Internet crowd." You were part of it.
No, I have great difficulty considering this as a civilization. It would have been okay, I guess, if they had also generated their own incomes, but they did not. They were like a bunch of artists living on the upper reaches of a society that was doing very well. When it doesn't do very well, they are still tolerated.

Dependent upon patronage.
Right. So this young employee is a Unix wizard, and he keeps all these things together, and at night he does extracurricular things, like with the Web — so let him do it. But it's not in the contract. There is, however, no way to reconcile our current civilisation with the so-called credo of the Internet: "We don't believe in kings, presidents and voting. We believe in rough consensus and running code." That credo is fine if you also grow your own potatoes and bake your own pizza. Then it's okay, and I can live with it.

But not if the kings are supporting you.
To maintain this philosophy you must become independent of them. Then if you have found a way to sustain it maybe I'll join you. But you must have some order somewhere. You cannot go without a system of making decisions, or it just doesn't sustain itself. And so maybe it won't. Or maybe I'm too old for this.

Anyway, all these things happened in parallel. The CERN internal lobbying, the CERN information server, splitting it off from the rest and making it usable, providing the physicists with usable Web sites, access protection. And the conferences, the European Commission project, that was all my part of it.

So how is it used today?
Well, we're still woking very hard, even inside, because it is still not perceived as a collaborative medium where there must be a minimum of rules. We have only very recently gotten back to the awareness of the general user. But again, that's a phenomenon which is a pure result of the fact that the Web grew at CERN. People have seen it here from the beginning; it was something lying around. Elsewhere it has been done better because of our experiences. The first guidelines for publishing on the Web came out of other laboratories a lot earlier than they did here. CERN has for a long time been a free-for-all on the Web.

What I'm hearing here are two things from you. One is that at first CERN didn't use the Web as well as some other sites because it was there to begin with, so people didn't respect it. Whereas, other people have sort of discovered it and experimented and come up with the rules for using it.
Yes, this is partly the fate of being first. We're working on that, and we're getting there.

But it also sounds to me like you're saying that in some sense the US hijacked the Web.
Well that was unavoidable because the Internet culture was bigger and more uniform in the US. It's a bigger pool, and there's also a uniform language basin.

How do you mean?
Well, you publish something interesting in English in California, and you can read it in Boston. You publish something interesting in Athens, and you cannot read it in Hamburg, right?

So you mean the actual, natural language?
Yes.

But also there was a bigger pool of this Internet crowd to which it spread?
Yeah, I mean essentially America has completely wiped out — whether this has been done consciously or not historians should find out; I will not volunteer an opinion on this--but you have essentially wiped out all computing industry in Europe.

Really?
Well tell me about computing in Europe. Name a single shrink-wrapped package that you know of--a popular, shrink-wrapped package — coming out of Europe.

How did we do this?
Name me one. One, just one.

I can tell you a very successful software concern out of Europe: SAP.
What do they make?

They are basically a consulting firm, but they push a particular piece of software that goes in and integrates a business process. It takes a lot of consulting; there's a lot of cottage industry.
True, we have that kind of stuff. And we certainly have the talent. There's no doubt about it. And of course we invented a lot of the technology — byte code interpretation or object-oriented development. All good programming languages came out of here, right? A lot of computer hardware concepts came out of here. All of this stuff came out of Europe. Even the word "packet" came from Davies. But our computer industry has been wiped out. We have no chip design anymore. 

But why is that? How did this happen?
You should consult historians.

You're telling me that this is kind of like Japan taking other people's initial technological developments and commercializing them?
They have no computer culture either.

But in terms of computers, you're telling me that the US is the Japan of computers?
The US has kept an iron grip on anything that was strategic computing development.

How have we managed to do that? I mean software is free, it's everywhere. There was an Internet crowd here at CERN. How has this happened?
It probably has partially to do also, but only partially, with the flower power California culture. Which is somehow needed. You need that sort of attitude to life to get a real computer hacker. Pure hackers don't wear business suits. The guys that come up with the ideas don't. You know, you need the Xerox Palo Alto Research Center. It's definitely not a corporate thing.

Is this just culture? Is it the economic climate? Is it money?
No, I think the really innovative guy in computing is not really driven by money. I don't think he is. Tim certainly is not. Most of the people that I have seen that really have done something, they're not driven by money. Those who are driven by money and have achieved money, they have not produced any innovative ideas. I shall not name them.*

See also the official CERN short history.

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