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WWW6: Evangelizing connectivity

Seeking to avoid the Vegas ambiance of other Internet trade shows, the Sixth International World Wide Web Conference kicks off at Stanford University.

Seeking to avoid the Vegas ambiance of other Internet trade shows, the Sixth International World Wide Web Conference's message of "Net access for all" looks to overshadow potential product announcements as it kicks off today in Santa Clara.

"Everyone, everything, connected" is the theme of the conference, where researchers from commercial and educational labs will share unpublished papers about the future of the Web. But for all the social-driven messages about the Net, Silicon Valley also has a prominent presence and investment in WWW6.

About 3,000 people are expected to attend the four-day nonprofit conference, which is cosponsored by Stanford and the Stanford Linear Accelerator Center. The primary corporate sponsors are Hewlett-Packard, Cisco Systems, and Microsoft.

"The whole key to the Web's potential is its power to connect people and one another," said Benjamin DeLong, a conference volunteer. "These companies realize that connectivity will help everyone, including their business, government, community, and educators. You can't just look at the 'haves.'"

Sticking with WWW6's theme, real-time audio and video broadcasts of the keynote speeches will be held over the Net. The site also allows remote attendees to ask questions to the speakers during question and answer sessions.

In line with the conference, the World Wide Web Consortium (W3C) announced the launch of the Web Accessibility Initiative today. Endorsed by the White House, the initiative will create and fund an international program office to develop technologies that will make the Web more accessible to those with disabilities. For example, the program will create protocol and data formats to support speech output for the blind. The project will begin this summer.

"The W3C is committed to removing accessibility barriers for all people with disabilities, including the deaf, blind, physically challenged, and cognitive or visually impaired. We plan to work aggressively with government, industry, and community leaders to establish and attain Web accessibility goals," said Tim Berners-Lee, director of the W3C, who is speaking at the conference on Friday.

Today, there will mostly be tutorials for Web developers and discussions on new standards for development. Tomorrow, keynote speaker Mae Jemison, the first woman of color to go into space as an astronaut, will speak on the importance of global Net access for the underprivileged, the disabled, and those living in rural areas. Also tomorrow, Tom Kalil, the director to the National Economic Council, will speak on new White House initiatives to expand Net access for persons with disabilities and K-12 students.

There will also be some product developments announced at WWW6. For example, IBM's Tel Aviv research group will present the Mini-Pay system (formerly known as "microSET"), a secure microtransaction payment product for the Web. It includes virtual wallets for consumers, vendors, and a billing system that allows people to buy low-cost services and products, usually under $10. The researchers will discuss their paper tomorrow at the "Security and Payment" panel; Mini-Pay is now in alpha testing.

Other events include Wednesday's keynote by Raj Reddy, dean of the school of computer science at Carnegie Mellon University, who will talk about creating a global infrastructure for universal access to information in the 21st century.

Later in the day, Michael Dertouzos of the computer science lab at MIT will create a picture of what the world would look like if "all the things" on the Web were interconnected, "where people and their computers will buy, sell, and freely exchange information and information work." Dertouzos is the author of a new book called What Will Be: How the World of Information will Change our Lives.

On Thursday, Howard Rheingold, founding editor of HotWired, will talk about his company, Electric Minds. He will also describe how human interaction on the "social Web" will change so that people can surf the Net together.

Bob Metcalfe, vice president of technology for the International Data Group, may settle a bet later that day regarding remarks he made two conferences ago at WWW4. There, he promised he would "eat his words" from a December 1995 InfoWorld column if the Internet did not collapse in 1996, as he had predicted. On Thursday, he will he give his verdict.

Friday will be dedicated to a presentation on the history of the Web.