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Future of the Web coming fast and furious

The creator of the World Wide Web stopped in a HP Labs to raise the profile of his latest venture: the study of the Web as a science.

PALO ALTO, Calif.--Though the favorite metaphor to describe the Web has long been a highway, or for some, a "series of tubes," the man credited with inventing it all thinks of the Web more like the human mind.

"Lots of people are doing research around the Web...and there are interesting results, but a lack of a core curriculum in the universities," Tim Berners-Lee told a gathering of scientists at HP Labs and other Silicon Valley executives here. "I've been told the Web has 10 to the 10 to the 11 (number of) Web sites. The brain we study as a complex system." So why not the Web?

What millions of Internet users take for granted every day--using the Web as a means to download movies, read the news, or check Facebook--will look drastically different five years from now, and that calls for study of it as a science, according to Berners-Lee and his colleagues at the Web Science Research Initiative. Launched a year ago, WSRI is a partnership between the Massachusetts Institute of Technology and University of Southampton in England, and is encouraging the study of both the social and technological implications of wide-scale use of the Web.

Tim Berners-Lee and Wendy Hall of WSRI visited HP Labs in Palo Alto. Erica Ogg/CNET

On a tour to encourage the adoption of Web science as a course of study at local universities, Berners-Lee spoke about what kind of challenges the increasingly social Web presents. Corralling the information about us out on the Web, identifying where it came from and who is allowed access to it are major issues that come up every day. Facebook's decision to combine user profiles with advertising is just one example.

But there are even more serious implications of a Web that is a growing collection of our personal information. Who owns it? And how do we determine how our information is used?

One example Berners-Lee gave is hospital records. It's still unclear how to be sure that doctors can have access to patient information to identify and treat you, but at the same time keep that information hidden from, say, your employer. There is no answer yet. "It's about building systems and understanding where data is coming from," he said. And though that will take time to come up with a new way of storing and organizing information on the Web, he and others are already working on it.

Phishing scams, spam, an overload of our current Web infrastructure, as well as the democracy of online communities, are each major ideas that need to be looked at with an academic eye, said Berners-Lee, rather than from a closed, proprietary, or corporate perspective. Berners-Lee has long advocated a universal and open Internet, and is one of the founders of the World Wide Web Consortium, the organization that supports open Web standards.

Though much of the future of the Web is wide open, one thing that will happen is that we won't be inputting our personal information into separate social networks, he said. In other words, we'll have one profile that compiles all information related to us and our social networks. "Right now, so many people are complaining that they have told one Web site who their friends are, and another one who their friends are...In five years time, I hope people will be programming not at the document level, but at the application level," he said. "You will have something which is an application which is consistent for looking at different aspects of people. It (will use) your role as their friend for putting together a very powerful, all-encompassing view of them (online)."