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Programming ability is the new digital divide: Berners-Lee

Tim Berners-Lee says lack of programming knowledge leaves users at the mercy of corporations

Web inventor Sir Tim Berners-Lee says all school students should be given some hands-on experience of programming, to provide a critical mass of enthusiastic and competent programmers to stem the current shortage of developers.

Perhaps more important, he says, this approach will promote a view of the computer as a machine that can be made to do anything its owner wants, rather than a domestic appliance "like a fridge", performing certain fixed tasks.

There are two kinds of digital divide, Berners-Lee told the audience at a booked-out presentation in Wellington yesterday; the more familiar divide is between those who can afford a computer and internet access and those who can't. Less talked of is the divide between those who can program and those whose computer "skills" are restricted to knowing how to work standard applications such as word processing and spreadsheets.

Lack of hands-on experience of the computer's flexibility leaves the user at the mercy of "a bunch of companies who would love to be able to lock it down, so you can only run the applications that they allow; the ones you can get from their app-store," Berners-Lee says.

A powerful fighter against this kind of restriction, he says, is author and blogger Cory Doctorow, who calls it "the war on general computation."

The larger theme of openness was Berners-Lee's central topic. This theme, as InternetNZ president Frank March pointed out, will be taken up by the NetHui conference organised by InternetNZ in July this year.

Berners-Lee explored openness as applied not only to the internet but to open access to information, to open -- hence more efficient and accountable - government and to the development of program code. He explained open-source development to his audience, emphasising the potential of sharing code for rapid development, free of formal licensing and procurement processes. "Open source makes everything run very much faster; people talk about a web-year as equal to 2.6 [ordinary] years."

He made only a glancing reference to patents, but many of his audience would have been conscious that the Patents Bill, with its exclusion of software, is now first on the Parliamentary Order Paper after the mammoth debate in reply to the Prime Minister's opening statement.

Openness and the free (in both senses of the word) ethos were an early stimulus for use of the web, its inventor pointed out. The University of Minnesota, which produced Gopher, an early tool for finding documents through the internet, wanted to start charging for it. This, says Berners-Lee, encouraged people to look to his own free offering.

One of the first principles of an open standard, he says, is that is that you shouldn't have to pay to get a copy of the standards document -- as is demanded, for example, by the International Standards Organisation. A key feature of web standards too is that anyone should be able -- indeed encouraged -- to be involved in criticising and developing the standard. "Almost everybody out there [in the technically minded web community] has an idea for a tag that should be in the html standard," he says.

Early writers of browsers adopted the open-source principle, freely trading bits of code among themselves and this spirit continues to inform the web. Patents are permissible under W3C principles, but use of the patented features is kept royalty-free.


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