week, Tim Berners-Lee, inventor of the World Wide Web, asked me to
come and see a project he has been working on almost as long as
the web itself. It’s a crisp autumn day in Boston, where
Berners-Lee works out of an office above a boxing gym. After
politely offering me a cup of coffee, he leads us into a sparse
conference room. At one end of a long table is a battered laptop
covered with stickers. Here, on this computer, he is working
on a plan to radically alter how all of us live and work on the
intent is world domination,” Berners-Lee says with a wry smile.
The British-born scientist is known for his dry sense of humor.
But in this case, he is not joking.
Berners-Lee will launch,Inrupt,
a startup that he has been building, in stealth mode, for the past
nine months. Backed by Glasswing Ventures, its mission is to
turbocharge a broader movement afoot, among developers around the
world, to decentralize the web and take back power from the forces
that have profited from centralizing it. In other words, it’s game
on for Facebook, Google, Amazon. For years now, Berners-Lee and
other internet activists have been dreaming of a digital utopia
where individuals control their own data and the internet remains
free and open. But for Berners-Lee, the time for dreaming is over.
to do it now,” he says, displaying an intensity and urgency that
is uncharacteristic for this soft-spoken academic. “It’s a
historical moment.” Ever since revelations emerged that Facebook
had allowed people’s data to be misused by political operatives,
Berners-Lee has felt an imperative to get this digital idyll into
the real world. In apost
published this weekend, Berners-Lee explains that he is
taking a sabbatical from MIT to work full time on Inrupt. The
company will be the first major commercial venture built off of
Solid, a decentralized web platform he and others at MIT have
spent years building.
NETSCAPE FOR TODAY’S INTERNET
goes as planned, Inrupt will be to Solid what Netscape once was
for many first-time users of the web: an easy way in. And like
with Netscape, Berners-Lee hopes Inrupt will be just the first of
many companies to emerge from Solid.
been imagining this for a very long time,” says Berners-Lee. He
opens up his laptop and starts tapping at his keyboard. Watching
the inventor of the web work at his computer feels like what it
might have been like to watch Beethoven compose a symphony: It’s
riveting but hard to fully grasp. “We are in the Solid world now,”
he says, his eyes lit up with excitement. He pushes the laptop
toward me so I too can see.
screen, there is a simple-looking web page with tabs across the
top: Tim’s to-do list, his calendar, chats, address book. He built
this app–one of the first on Solid–for his personal use. It is
simple, spare. In fact, it’s so plain that, at first glance,
it’s hard to see its significance. But to Berners-Lee, this
is where the revolution begins. The app, using Solid’s
decentralized technology, allows Berners-Lee to access all of his
data seamlessly–his calendar, his music library, videos, chat,
research. It’s like a mashup of Google Drive, Microsoft Outlook,
Slack, Spotify, and WhatsApp.
difference here is that, on Solid, all the information is under
his control. Every bit of data he creates or adds on Solid exists
within a Solid pod–which is an acronym for personal online data
store. These pods are what give Solid users control over their
applications and information on the web. Anyone using the platform
will get a Solid identity and Solid pod. This is how people,
Berners-Lee says, will take back the power of the web from
For example, one idea Berners-Lee is currently working on is a way
to create a decentralized version of Alexa, Amazon’s increasingly
ubiquitous digital assistant. He calls it Charlie. Unlike with
Alexa, on Charlie people would own all their data. That means they
could trust Charlie with, for example, health records, children’s
school events, or financial records. That is the kind of machine
Berners-Lee hopes will spring up all over Solid to flip the power
dynamics of the web from corporation to individuals.
NEW REVOLUTION FOR DEVELOPERS?
believes Solid will resonate with the global community of
developers, hackers, and internet activists who bristle over
corporate and government control of the web. “Developers have
always had a certain amount of revolutionary spirit,” he observes.
Circumventing government spies or corporate overlords may be the
initial lure of Solid, but the bigger draw will be something even
more appealing to hackers: freedom. In the centralized web, data
is kept in silos–controlled by the companies that build them, like
Facebook and Google. In the decentralized web, there are no silos.
this week, developers around the world will be able to start
building their own decentralized apps with tools through the
Inrupt site. Berners-Lee will spend this fall criss-crossing the
globe, giving tutorials and presentations to developers about
Solid and Inrupt. (There will be a Solid tutorial at ourFast
Company Innovation Festivalon October
great about having a startup versus a research group is things get
done,” he says. These days, instead of heading into his lab at
MIT, Berners-Lee comes to the Inrupt offices, which are currently
based out of Janeiro Digital, a company he has contracted to help
work on Inrupt. For now, the company consists of Berners-Lee; his
partner John Bruce, who built Resilient, a security platform
bought by IBM; a handful of on-staff developers contracted to work
on the project; and a community of volunteer coders.
fall, Berners-Lee plans to start looking for more venture funding
and grow his team. The aim, for now, is not to make billions of
dollars. The man who gave the web away for free has never been
motivated by money. Still, his plans could impact billion-dollar
business models that profit off of control over data. It’s not
likely that the big powers of the web will give up control without
about this, Berners-Lee says flatly: “We are not talking to
Facebook and Google about whether or not to introduce a complete
change where all their business models are completely upended
overnight. We are not asking their permission.”
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