Click for profiles on important and interesting media people:
Tim Berners-Lee: Invented the World Wide Web
Vint Cerf: Called the Father of the Internet
Bill Gates: Built Microsoft into global software dominance
Michael Hart: Created Project Gutenberg online archives
Neal Stephenson: Techno-thriller author with uncanny prescience
Tim Berners-Lee, now at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, revolutionized human communication by inventing the World Wide Web, the global information infrastructure that has emerged as the mass medium that may, given time, eclipse many of our current media. Some liken Berners-Lee to Johannes Gutenberg, who 400 years earlier launched the Age of Mass Communication with the movable type that made mass production of the written word possible.
While Berners-Lee is widely respected in academic circles, he remains obscure to most people. He was interviewed once in 1993 on Carl Malamud's Geek of the Week radio program, and his resumé is heavy with scholarly presentations at lofty academic conferences. To most of the human race, though, even people who rely on the World Wide Web every day, TBL's name is not yet a household word.
Tim Berners-Lee was graduated from Oxford in 1976 and went to work as a software engineer in England. Over the next few years he put in a couple stints at Conseil Europeen pour la Recherche Nucleaire (CERN), the high-power European physics lab in Geneva, and dabbled with software programs for storing data so it could be reassembled with random associations. In 1989 he joined CERN on a permanent basis. In October that year he proposed a new project dubbed the World Wide Web. His goal was create a system that would allow physicists on just about any computer anywhere to tap into any of several computer networks, called internets, and to move around freely among interconnected documents. Working with four software engineers and a programmer, Berners-Lee had a demonstration up and running by Christmas.
As Berners-Lee traveled the globe to introduce the Web at scientific conferences, the potential of what he had devised became clear. The Web was a system that could put all information in interface with all other information.
In 1992, leading research organizations in the Netherlands, Germany and the United States committed to the Web. As enthusiasm grew in the scientific research community, word spread to other quarters. In one eight-month period in 1993, Web use multiplied 414 times. Then in 1994, a product called Internet in a Box, was introduced in the United States to allow people at their home computers to connect with the Web. This was the beginning of widespread access.
Even as a kid, Vinton Cerf liked tech stuff. When he was 10, back in 1953, he built a volcano out of plaster of paris and potassium permanganate. Then he decorated the mountain with gelatin-coated glycerine capsules and waited for the gelatin to melt. The result: A thermite grenade that impressed and also scared his folks.
Today Cerf is called the Father of the Internet. Although he's uncomfortable with the title, the fact is that he was there. Cerf, "Vint" to his friends, and co-researcher Bob Kahn created the coding the allowed various computers to talk to each over phone lines. Cerf and Kahn, both at the University of California at Los Angeles at the time, published an article explaining their protocols in 1974.
Kahn's interests shifted to other things, but Cerf kept working on details for linking the military's Advanced Research Projects Agency network to other networks in a way that would seem seamless to users.
Why does Cerf object to being called the Father of the Internet. "It's not right to think of the Internet as having only one father," he says. "It has at least two, and in reality thousands because of the number of people who have contributed to what it is today." Even so, it was Kahn who took the project to Stanford when he switched universities and shepherded it into maturity through 1982. In that year, he left for MCI, where he worked on the company's innovative email system. Even there, he remained close to his interest in the Internet.
Later, in 1992, Cerf created the nonprofit Internet Society that coordinates Internet policy so the system remains universally useful.
Bill Gates was well into his courses at Harvard when his high school buddy Paul Allen drove across the country from Seattle to convince him to drop out. Gates did. The pair went to Albuquerque and set up shop to do computer stuff. Their company, Microsoft, today is the world's largest software producer, and it is moving rapidly into creating a dominant Internet presence. It also is becoming a major creator of media content. With the company's success, Gates became the world's richest person. In 1997, at age 41, he was worth $23.9 billion. His assets were growing at $30 million a day.
In Albuquerque in 1976, Gates wrote the code for the Microsoft Disk Operating System, usually abbreviated as MS-DOS and pronounced m-s DOSS. Allen and Gates persuaded computer hardware manufacturers to bundle MS-DOS with their units, which pre-empted competitors. The bundling also gave Microsoft a growing and gigantic market for software application programs that operated only on MS-DOS. The company's word-processing program, Microsoft Word, for example, dominates globally. So do various Microsoft Windows operating systems that have updated MS-DOS.
With their initial success, Gates and Allen moved the company to their hometown, Seattle, where it remains. Allen bowed out after a debilitating disease was diagnosed (falsely, it turned out). Allen's departure left Gates in charge. Today the company operates out of a 35-building campus in suburban Redmond.
Critics say Microsoft products are neither the best nor the most innovative. These critics attribute the company's success to cut-throat competitive practices and marketing muscle, rather than product excellence. Detractors have built Web sites that revile Gates as an unconscionable monopolist. Twice the federal government has considered antitrust action to force Microsoft to scale back, but each time drew back. Gates, who subscribes to Darwin's "survival of the fittest" theory, explains away the criticism as envy.
In the mid-1990s Gates became concerned that Microsoft's software dominance would be eroded by Internet-based systems, like Sun Microsystem's Java, that allow people to tap remote computers for the applications they need -- rather than storing dozens or hundreds of applications inside their own personal computers. Responding to the changing landscape, Gates set Microsoft on a new course. The company introduced a browser, Internet Explorer, to go against the innovative, fast-growing Netscape Navigator browser. He bundled Explorer inside major Microsoft software packages so customers would have it on hand as the company developed advertiser-supported content products with easy access through Explorer.
To jump-start Microsoft's move into real-time delivery of content, Gates created an alliance with the NBC television network. One component of the alliance is the MS Network, an online computer service which includes NBC-generated news, information and entertainment content, plus a growing array of content from Microsoft. Another component is the MSNBC cable television network that draws on both companies' resources.
Sensing the potential of the Internet, Michael Hart typed the Declaration of Independence into the University of Illinois mainframe computer in 1971. Then he sent it to everybody on the old ARPA network that preceded the Internet. Thus began Project Gutenberg -- a growing online collection of literature and reference works available free.
Hart's Declaration of Independence was a text-only, unglamorous presentation -- and that's still how Gutenberg looks. The simple format makes material available to everybody. Says Hart: "I want people who still have old Atari 800s to be able to read these books." Hart likens himself to an electronic Johnny Appleseed, whose goal is straight-forward: Contribute to literacy by making literature universally available. In an interview with Dennis Hamilton for Wired magazine, Hart said: "Other than to redesign democracy, I can't think of anything more important than Gutenberg. It's the Archimedes leveler: Give me a place to stand, and I'll move the world."
The plain-vanilla Gutenberg format means blind people can run the text through a speech synthesizer. It also means libraries and other online sources can give their patrons access with no budget strain. And anybody with even the simplest computer and a modem can tap in free.
Hart, who has no regular, full-time job although he has been loosely associated with several universities off and on, keys in books himself. Over the years 750 people worldwide, sharing his enthusiasm, have volunteered to help with inputting and proofing. Two volunteer lawyers check that copyrights have indeed expired on everything that Gutenberg puts online.
About 10,000 Gutenberg files are downloaded from the University of Illinois computer on a typical day, but hundreds of libraries, online services and others recycle the books through their servers. Hart has never tried to keep records on usage: "I don't care where a book goes. I just want it to sprout legs and run."
Neal Stephenson emerged as an important new-tech novelist with his 1992 Snow Crash, which became the rage of Silicon Valley. The novel, a thriller, originally intended as a Macintosh game, is set in a near-future when the United States has lost its leadership in everything but movies, software and high-speed pizza delivery. It's a bustling, not unfriendly "megaverse." Characteristic of Stephenson's work, Snow Crash has disparate story lines that culminate quickly in the last few pages.
Critics applaud Stephenson's sense of language and culture, especially the interactions between groups of individuals and changing technology. He also has demonstrated a good sense of what's technologically just ahead. His Zodiac, in 1988, was intended to be "day after tomorrow" fiction -- a future that was very close. One of his characters writes computer games for 32-bit home computers, which soon became the norm.
Stephenson, born in 1959, has been hailed as a possible successor to William Gibson, author of Neuromancer, in the techno-thriller genre. Stephenson's works include The Big U, 1984, Zodiac: The Eco-Thriller, 1988; Interface, 1994; and Diamond Age, 1995, which was co-authored with his uncle under the pseudonym Stephen Bury.
© 1997, by John Vivian, Route 1, Box 32, Lewiston, Minnesota USA 55987-9706