June 14, 2004

Blessing of the Non-Anti-Commons

Blessing of the non-anti-commons, or something like that. MIT's Technology Review reports:

Technology Review: MIT's Magazine of Innovation: Web Inventor Rewarded At Last posted by Erika Jonietz @ 6/14/2004 9:25:48 AM: Fifteen years on, Web inventor Tim Berners-Lee has finally gotten the sort of reward many tech pioneers of the ’90s chased after—a financial one. Tuesday he will become the first recipient of the world’s largest technology prize, the $1.2 million Millennium Technology Prize from the Finnish Technology Award Foundation, reports the International Herald Tribune.

Rather than patenting his idea for the World Wide Web, Berners-Lee and colleague Robert Cailliau, working at CERN (the European Particle Physics Laboratory in Geneva), insisted on a license-free technology. If they hadn’t, Berners-Lee says, the Web wouldn’t be the interoperable linkup that it is. “There would have been a CERN Web, a Microsoft one, there would have been a Digital one, Apple’s HyperCard would have started reaching out Internet roots,“ he said. “And all of these things would have been incompatible.“

Three cheers for the spirit of creativity that Berners-Lee has fostered and still believes in!

As Madeleine Kahn would say, "It's twue! It's twue!" I remember 1993-1995, when AOL was busily trying to get the Justice Department to launch a preemptive strike against Microsoft Network, and everyone was looking forward to a future in which different network providers--AOL, Microsoft, Compuserve, et cetera--fought it out, each with their own closed network of content providers, their own closed set of content-creation tools (remember Blackbird?), and their own jealously-guarded pool of subscribers. That world would have been one of much smaller networks, much less useful networks, and much less frequently used networks.

But instead they were all submerged by the tsunami coming out of academia started by Tim Berners-Lee. We owe him a huge amount--all of us do.

Posted by DeLong at June 14, 2004 02:16 PM | TrackBack | | Other weblogs commenting on this post
Comments

This post does seem to demand some answers from economists, particularly those of the neo-classical stripe.

How does the invention of the WWW at a government laboratory fit with the now-standard "entrepreneurs are the source of all good things" line we hear from business schools? (And you are not allowed to do what some apologists do and redefine "entrepreneur" to include anyone who does something creative).

If standard neo-classical models of profit-driven innovation can't explain the biggest innovation of recent years then they have a bit of explaining to do. Perhaps they need to be on the receiving end of a little creative desctruction?
How does the invention of the WWW as a license-free technology fit with the now-standard line that patents and other ways of "privatizing the commons" are essential for innovation?

Posted by: Tom Slee on June 14, 2004 02:52 PM

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Note to self -- preview before posting. It was meant to read like this:

This post does seem to demand some answers from economists, particularly those of the neo-classical stripe.

How does the invention of the WWW at a government laboratory fit with the now-standard "entrepreneurs are the source of all good things" line we hear from business schools? (And you are not allowed to do what some apologists do and redefine "entrepreneur" to include anyone who does something creative).

How does the invention of the WWW as a license-free technology fit with the now-standard line that patents and other ways of "privatizing the commons" are essential for innovation?

If standard neo-classical models of profit-driven innovation can't explain the biggest innovation of recent years then they have a bit of explaining to do. Perhaps they need to be on the receiving end of a little creative destruction?

Posted by: Tom Slee on June 14, 2004 02:55 PM

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Similarly, I think the evolution of the digital cellular phone systems worldwide makes an interesting case study. Countries that agreed on the GSM standard (which locked in a TDMA air interface that was arguably inferior to the emerging proprietary CDMA system) saw much more rapid developments in interoperability, like text messaging, roaming, subscriber identity modules, etc, as well as a larger and faster-evolving market for handsets.

In contrast, the US market, which allowed different and incompatible standards to compete ended up with a fractured market, incompatible handsets, inability to text message across carriers, no cross-carrier roaming, limited handset choice, etc.

Now that we are on the brink of another transition in cellular systems (to high-speed data access), what is the right model?

Posted by: ToonArmy on June 14, 2004 03:10 PM

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I think I'll open a bottle of wine, pour me a glass, and toast Tim Berners-Lee!

Posted by: RT on June 14, 2004 03:44 PM

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These economists of the "neo-classical stripe" may want to turn their attentions to the actual working process used by the standards bodies that do the actual heavy lifting of turning government-funded research into privately funded engineering projects.

There are a lot of interesting ways that promising research can be derailed in the standards development process by powerful business interests with a big stake in preventing the emergence of disruptive technologies. Some of the processes used by these standards bodies are more effective than others at producing innovations in real world technology. But do the processes themselves resemble the processes taught in American business schools as the traditional way to foster innovation? Um.... I have my doubts.

I often suspect that there is a lot of exceptional research going on that never makes it into the technology marketplace because the standards development process used by industry is fundamentally broken at the level of basic economics.

Posted by: s9 on June 14, 2004 04:28 PM

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You miss the most important battle of the Web revolution. Getting access to the data is irrelevant, the ability to create information is the issue. The corporate concept of 'Interactive TV' was not interactive at all, the viewers were simply passive consumers of content, the only 'interaction' supported was buying stuff.

The reason that I and others worked with Tim was because the Web provided a way for anyone to publish information. What we now call the blogosphere was the whole point, that was the original plan, grass roots communication. And it is taking place at about the rate I originally expected. I ran a politics site during the 1992 US election, I thought it would be about ten years before the Web would play a major role.

On the open/closed issue I think you need to look at the reasons why the industry moved from the closed garden model to the web model. Microsoft started MSN late. It served their interests to disrupt the closed garden model of compuserve/aol.

All ideology ends up as drivel because the world is more complex than one single idea.

One aspect of WWW that has not had much notice is that we also rejected the GNU model, putting the code and technology in tje public domain. We also lobbied computer companies to take our ideas and use them - including in for profit products.

Internet Explorer is a descendent of the CERN code. Mosaic was built on CERN code and IE was originally built on Mosaic. I doubt that there is any of the code I or anyone else at CERN originally wrote left in IE, but it did help start the process.

Posted by: Phill on June 14, 2004 04:42 PM

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This is interesting. Would the closed model you think was the alternative really have been the result if TBL did not public domain his stuff? I do not know. Actually, that is not true. I do know, everything would have become interoperable, but the timeframe is the question.
Interestingly, HTML is a disaster. Web sites are remarkably feeble, but the huge surge that the Internet created, with HTML being a major part, kick-started the energy and investment required to move technology quickly. Of course, quickly is not always good, and there are a lot of lingering issues with web development and how quickly new and slightly incompatible versions were developed. Eventually, we found XML a close cousin of HTML, but a huge leap forward for machine to machine communications. HTML will die, mostly soon, but lingering for a while, and it will be replaced mostly by XML or some derivitive.
Certainly, we would have eventualy come to something XML-like, but would it be so human readable, would the democratization of the web have happened the way it did? There is something that seems inevitable about it -- like the inevitability that George W. Bush we will be universally be considered a fool and an embarassment, but the question is when?

Posted by: theCoach on June 14, 2004 05:26 PM

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Phill - Interesting point. Would Netscape/MS have used Mosaic if it had been GPL? Hard to say. It seems unlikely that MS especially would be keen on giving away the code to IE. Not that MS couldn't have simply started from scratch. And what I now consider the best browser - Mozilla - is open source

theCoach - HTML certainly has its problems, but what we want to do with the web today is very different from what people wanted to do 10 years ago. Was HTML really that bad a place to start?

Posted by: crayz on June 14, 2004 05:52 PM

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theCoach - I agree HTML has its problems, but then so does QWERTY. I would guess HTML will last for, well, not quite as long as QWERTY, but for some time yet. There's just too much of it.

Posted by: Tom Slee on June 14, 2004 06:07 PM

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Brad, I'll take the bait.

I remember learning about Blackbird while I worked at Berkeley Systems, '93-94 or so.
It was put out as the 'Next big thing that Microsoft was doing, and would put the Internet to shame.'

I figured it was another Microsoft FUD tactic to delay competition while they worked on their real Internet approach. (Tho I never imagined the internet would get this big.)

Glad I was right about the first part.

rbb

Posted by: MobiusKlein on June 14, 2004 06:11 PM

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Just to be contrary, I'll go ahead and argue that HTML, warts and all, is much better than XML as a generic somewhat structured markup language.

Its' advantage is that it is not as strict, nor is it interpreted strictly by most browsers.

You can write a web page that will work for just about every browser by starting with a text file in dropping in a couple of anchor/href tags.

To paraphrase Larry Wall from _Programming Perl_, it is okay to write 'baby-html' and we don't laugh at you, much.

Posted by: Rich Gibson on June 14, 2004 06:15 PM

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Tom Slee:
The web isn't the first, or even the best, example of government funded research as a better tool for innovation than "entrepreneurs." Medical research, funded by NIH, to the tune of over $1B annually, has held place of honor for years. Most of the advances in medicine over the last 50 years have come out of NIH funded academia.

S9:
Medicine is also a good example of profit motives keeping advancing technologies out of the marketplace. Drug companies have long bought up patents to advances in drug therapy in order to protect sales of existing, but less efficacious or more expensive, therapies.

Posted by: flory on June 14, 2004 06:31 PM

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Will the revolution in intellectual property wrought by computers and software will permanently alter the nature of private (intellectual) property?

We don't completely know how it will all come out, and we can certainly screw things up.

If the invention of inter-operable HTML (and the success of the WWW) was not inevitable, then we have to ask: What other innovations are within our grasp but have been lost due to mis-structured organizations and broken intellectual property rules?

Or is this all just a tempest in a teapot based on the very peculiar dynamics of the need of communications standards to be inter-operable? Profit making corporations recognized the value of shared free interoperable presentation standards (HTML) and made used it to create billions of dollars of new economic wealth.

Business recognizing and using the value HTML is very like business recognizing and using the laws of physics and chemistry to build stuff. Some scientific knowledge is in the public domain (Maxwell's equations) and other, more detailed, limited stuff is private property (the source code for video games or the designs of chips).


Posted by: Warren on June 14, 2004 06:41 PM

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That should read "Sir Tim Berners-Lee". He got a knighthood in the last Queen's honours list. (Personally, I think he deserves higher honours than that. "Marquis Tim Berners-Lee", anyone?)

Posted by: Peter Murphy on June 14, 2004 11:04 PM

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Are you guys looking forward to a web of 90% Xaml?

Posted by: theCoach on June 15, 2004 04:54 AM

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"Socialism" could, arguably, work for huge amounts of intellectual "property", if not all.

While it's immoral to take my car, or tax my income, it's not immoral to copy info & share it. Society needs to come up with other ways of promoting innovation rather than the increasingly broken IP laws. Tax funded prizes seem one of the best. Fame & speaking engagement cash would be another.

Posted by: Tom Grey on June 15, 2004 08:18 AM

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I respect Sir Berners-Lee for open-sourcing the web. I respect him even more for not complaining about not getting paid for it. I envy him for getting paid a huge wad for it 15 years later! =)

Posted by: agm on June 15, 2004 03:44 PM

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I swear the man should set up a paypal account so the world can shower him with small gifts. A modern day hero.

Posted by: Tim B. on June 15, 2004 05:04 PM

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"I respect Sir Berners-Lee for open-sourcing the web. I respect him even more for not complaining about not getting paid for it. I envy him for getting paid a huge wad for it 15 years later!"

Foof. He's got peanuts. dmr and the Bell Labs Unix team also got peanuts, but their insights are used in every modern desktop OS. Ditto Papert and the Xerox PARC people.

If intellectual property rights are what drive innovation, how come these guys have done ok and Bill Gates has the billions?

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