Servers

The Tech Wisdom Of Sir Tim Berners-Lee

Having already spoken at several locations around the country during his Australian tour, Sir Tim Berners-Lee gave the final keynote at Linux.conf.au this morning. What are his thoughts on open platforms, operating systems choice, HTML5 DRM and the <blink> tag?

Photo: Michael Loccisano/Getty Images

As a speaker, Berners-Lee jumps frequently from one topic to another, speaking rapidly and often leaving sentences half-finished. His talk had two nominal central themes: the future of the web as a platform and the prosecution of Aaron Swartz. However, the topics touched on were much broader and (compared to his earlier talks) more technically focused. Many tied in with themes we’ve been examining throughout this week’s World Of Servers coverage.

Addressing an audience containing many programmers, Berners-Lee reminded the audience that the developer mindset isn’t shared by most people who use computers:

Within people who use the web, there’a s subset of people who code. A lot of people who don’t program regard their computer like a refrigerator. If there’s not enough stuff in it they stock up with more apps. But the apps are like Coke cans; they don’t understand they can make it do anything they want.

Berners-Lee also endorsed the idea of multiple operating systems choices — “It’s great to have a diversity of operating systems” — but argued that this was much less relevant given the programing power available in HTML5. “If every web page is a computer, it’s programmable — that’s kind of big.”

While browsers identify themselves as ‘user agents’, Berners-Lee suggested we might need a better terminology, since not all the software we install necessarily has our interests in mind. “The right to have root on your machine is the right to have things that install on your behalf,” he said. That isn’t going to be the case with everything you encounter on a web site.

That programming reach is difficult in an era where, as the Swartz case demonstrated, there’s a lack of clarity in current cybercrime statutes. “There are all these laws that were made for a previous time. We try to stumble by and use them,” Berners-Lee noted. “Some of these things need a complete overhaul.”

Berners-Lee offered a very nuanced response when asked for his thoughts on adding digital rights management (DRM) to HTML5, a likely development if HTML5 does become the default for deploying all video content:

It’s really difficult, and I’m not completely sure what my opinion is. If there has to be DRM, let’s do it in an open way. If the alterative is that there’s a strong push to lock down my laptop like a console, I don’t like that either. I hate DRM, I don’t think it’s the way to run a web site, but I understand there are people who want to use it because their stuff is going to be ripped off. What I do respect is the right of musicians to put food on the table.

How will the web evolve in the future? Berners-Lee argues that not knowing is a key part of its charm:

The Web is just a platform for your creativity. The important thing about the web is I cannot imagine what you are going to do with it. It’s whatever you make of it.

But there is one thing of which he’s certain: the long-reviled <blink> tag was a mistake:

The blink tag sucked then, it sucks now, and it will always suck.

Lifehacker’s World Of Servers sees me travelling to conferences around Australia and around the globe in search of fresh insights into how server and infrastructure deployment is changing in the cloud era. This week, I’m in Canberra for Linux.conf.au, paying particular attention to the systems administration mini-conference and sessions on virtualisation and best practice.