Here's to 20 years of the Web -- may it stay open and free

CERN first made available the Web's source code 20 years ago. We can still learn from that spirit of openness today

Today's business models typically focus on gaining leverage with a large group of people, from software developers to end-users. Yet the behavior of many entrepreneurs suggests they'd prefer control of their intellectual property to successful adoption by millions -- at least, that's the consequence of their choices. By erecting barriers to adoption, they unwittingly discourage the very usage that would build their market and drive their success. However, CERN's celebration of 20 years of the open Web refutes this strategy and provides a useful insight into the dynamic of gaining broad adoption.

CERN is an international research facility, working at the frontiers of nuclear physics. It was here (as you're no doubt aware) that the Web was born and grew, initially as a way to share information between universities and other research institutes. Shortly after browsers were created for the PC and Macintosh environments -- opening potential Web use to the masses -- the source code for the World Wide Web was made freely available. The document that made the technology behind the World Wide Web available without restrictions showed up recently as part of CERN's commemorations.

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This was an absolutely key factor in the meteorical growth of the Web. Rather than making the technology proprietary, CERN set it free. The result was rapid adoption, along with extensive reimplementation. The instinct to keep Web technology unrestricted became a characteristic expectation, to the extent of being the default within the W3C, the organization that emerged to look after Web standards.

Did this mean no one could make money with, on, or from the Web? By no means! The rapidly expanding Web ecosystem brought with it needs and corresponding commercial opportunities at every level. That expansion was the result of the freedom to use the Web, to study the software that runs it, to reimplement that software, to innovate freely without needing to seek permission, and to deploy it anywhere.

One practical experience may illustrate why that openness is so important. Having the standards and software open isn't primarily a matter of licensing cost. Rather, it's a matter of flexibility and having the fewest process barriers to solving a need. It turns out there was a competing technology to the World Wide Web, but it failed because of the belief it needed permission to adopt.

Back at the start of the '90s, I was working on videoconferencing at IBM (you'll still find my name next to the well-known port number allocation for it). Among my responsibilities was making information available on the newly popular Internet. We had a Web page for our project and considered the idea of publishing information through another, much more widely used technology of the time known as Gopher. But Gopher came with restrictions. In a conservative corporate environment, the possible need to secure a license of any kind raises issues for ordinary employees.

It's not just that seeking permission from the copyright owner of the software is an extra step. For corporate employees, gaining permission internally to seek permission externally is a problem too. As soon as there's a need to exercise authority, there is a need to determine who has the power to make that decision. The larger the organization, the harder that is to determine.

With Gopher we were concerned that running our own server might require some sort of license. Getting that license would need permission, and getting that permission would probably need a budget, management interaction, and records keeping. We stuck with a Web page -- not to avoid license fees but to avoid climbing a mountain of permissions.

Our experience was duplicated all over the world. Though widely used, Gopher stagnated in the face of an open alternative. People don't like to have to ask permission to get their job done; given a choice between a technology that can be used without having to seek permission and one that requires approval from its owner (and all the corresponding bureaucracy with one's employer), the decision is easy.

People have asked what would have happened if the Web was patented. The answer: There would never have been a Web. It would have been an interesting project stuck in a lab somewhere, unable to get any traction or any attention against the better-known Gopher.

What made the World Wide Web was CERN's decision to offer it freely. We should be immeasurably grateful for that enlightened decision. More important, we should learn from it that "open" can create more wealth for more people than staying private.

This article, "Here's to 20 years of the Web -- may it stay open and free," was originally published at InfoWorld.com. Read more of the Open Sources blog and follow the latest developments in open source at InfoWorld.com. For the latest business technology news, followInfoWorld.com on Twitter.

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