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Tech advice from Tim Berners-Lee

The inventor of the World Wide Web has some thoughts to share: free is best; big isn't better; open beats closed; and trust is vital.

Tim Berners-Lee at the Web 2.0 Summit. Rafe Needleman/CNET

SAN FRANCISCO--When Tim Berners-Lee, inventor of the World Wide Web, entered the room for the final interview at the Web 2.0 Summit, the audience stood up for him.

Appropriately so, since most of those present here Thursday owe their livelihoods to his invention. In an on-stage interview with Tim O'Reilly, the audience was listening to Berners-Lee not just for his perspective but his guidance. While not explicitly called out in the discussion, there was good advice in what he had to say. Here's what I heard:

Don't build your laws into the Web. "Technology shouldn't tell you what's right and what's wrong," Berners-Lee said. "The rule of law applies on the Web. It's a platform for humanity." He does not appear believe that it is appropriate to code local laws onto the global platform, preferring to leave enforcement to existing means--police and courts.

Fault-tolerance is vital. Responding to question from O'Reilly about the "404" page being one of the critical inventions on the Web, Berners-Lee said, "It was a trade-off and a design choice." But, he added, "The great thing is you can write a bunch of links and you don't have to wait" for them all to work. Building a tight system where everything is guaranteed to work is possible in smaller configurations but not on a global scale.

If you want it everywhere, give it away. The Twitter founders must have heard this message before they built their product. When asked why Berners-Lee never thought about charging for the Web, the answer was practical and capitalistic. "Because we wanted it everywhere," He said. "We wanted an URL for every page." And he got it. Ubiquity would not have been possible with competing, paid hypertext systems.

Large companies are the enemy. I'm interpreting here, from this statement: "I'm worried about anything large coming in to take control, whether it's large companies or government." For example, he said that large social networks like Facebook end up with undue control over communications because they are not open to other systems. As he said, in the old days of e-mail, you could e-mail anyone, anywhere, from any system. They all interconnected. With large, closed systems, users cede control to the owners.

Small open companies can topple big closed ones. Berners-Lee believes that if you have small companies that connect to each other in an open way (for example, small social networks using a standard to connect their networks), then it's possible that the lone, closed system, no matter how large, can fail.

Separate design from device. The growth of mobile devices is one example of how thinking about Web design for one size screen--a PC or laptop--can cut a product off from growth. Another: not considering the increase in the number of users with "huge screens" on which a design created for, say, and 800x600 Flash window, will appear tiny and weak.

Consider content as app. Thanks to HTML 5, which Berners-Lee calls a competing platform more than a content standard, Web pages can turn into widgets, and some apps won't be distinguishable from Web pages.

Forge trust. Berners-Lee says, "One of the whole gating factors of getting the whole world of Web apps to take off is trust." He says that when Web apps get data from different services and those services similarly reach out to others, how do users, customers, and companies ever learn to trust a single site? What's the solution? He doesn't know, but believes it's an opportunity: "If we get a really good solution to the problem, then Web apps will be amazing."

Make the Web work for more people. As Berners-Lee says, only 20 percent to 25 percent of humans uses the Web even though 80 percent "have signal," that is, they could get on the Web where they are if they had the tools or desire to do so. He believes that one of the reasons use of the Web is lower than its availability is that much of the Web isn't designed for all cultures. The World Wide Web Foundation is Berners-Lee's platform for pushing for more Web access for the world. He puts the challenge this way: "It's about figuring out what is the little thing we can tweak so that people can get online, 15 years before they would otherwise?" More people connected means more empowered people. Which, by the way, means more of a market for Web inventors.