Jean-François Abramatic, 20 years with W3C
Jean-François Abramatic - © Inria / Photo G. Cohen
Jean-François Abramatic, President of W3C from 1996 to 2001, is currently adviser to INRIA’s Deputy Director General for Industrial Transfers and Partnerships. On the occasion of the twentieth anniversary of the W3C, the body responsible for standardisation of the Web, he reviews the history of W3C and the new challenges he is facing on behalf of the consortium.
In what way have you been involved in the history of W3C?
- In May 1994, I met Tim Berners-Lee* at the first World Wide Web conference in Geneva, at a time when I was INRIA’s director of research. When we met again five months later, on the occasion of the second international conference in Chicago, the crowd was so big that you couldn’t get into the halls! It was then that we realised the huge scale of the phenomenon that was to become the Web. It was in that same year that Tim announced the creation of W3C, the international consortium responsible for creating standards for the Web.
I continued to correspond with Tim and that is how I came to organize through INRIA the fifth conference, held in Paris in 1996. Because he had worked at CERN before pursuing his career at MIT in the United States, Tim insisted that W3C ought to be a truly international body. He first contacted CERN to ask it to represent Europe, but it declined. At the suggestion of MIT and the European Commission, INRIA, which was already a member of the W3C, was asked to represent Europe, something that was logical in view of the work involved. As a result of my previous experience, I was appointed Vice-President of W3C in 1995. A team of European researchers based at Sophia-Antipolis was then set up, and meanwhile I travelled the length and breadth of the Continent, recruiting new members, companies, universities and research centres. In 1996, MIT offered me the presidency of this body. I accepted without hesitation as it was a unique opportunity to participate actively in the astonishing growth of the Internet.
What are the tasks of W3C?
- As a body responsible for promoting technical standards to facilitate communication, our first major project consisted in gathering all of the major players around the same table in order to promote the html language, the one that is currently used to write all of the Web pages. Creating a consensus around a standard is more complicated than might appear, as evidenced by the diversity of electrical plugs between one country and another. But in the case of html, the style sheets (graphics, fonts, etc.), disabled accessibility and the use of XML for sharing data, W3C has managed in every period to create rights-free standards, so that anyone involved in the Internet can use the standard tools for free. This complies with its slogan, Leading the Web to Its Full Potential . All of these results were obtained through dialogue since W3C only has the power to make recommendations. These were complied with in the case of the original standards, but as far as more recent ones are concerned Web users need a minimum amount of time in which to be allowed to comply.
After spending some time at the ILOG company then at IBM in the 2000s, you have returned to INRIA. What is your new assignment here?
- I am advisor to the deputy CEO for Transfer and industrial partnerships. In particular, I work part-time on the topics of internet governance as a W3C Fellow. I was chosen to be part of the inaugural coordination council of NETmundial initiative. This new body, within which all of the stakeholders in the Internet (the technical world, enterprises, countries, the civil society) and the major geographical areas aim to promote a world governing body so that the network can stimulate economic and social progress. Personally, I represent the technical side for Europe. With three billion users, there are political, economic and societal issues involving cybersecurity, privacy, freedoms and accessibility, and these need to be the subject of multiple contributions of various natures if there is to be any progress.
How do you see your role?
- I have had scientific training but I am also aware that the technical decisions involving the Web could have an economic, political and societal impact. Thanks to the experience I have acquired in the world of research and enterprise, I think I can demonstrate that I am able to objectively consider to the degree required so as to take the right decisions. This new experiment is of interest to me both on a professional level and as a citizen: it is a real opportunity to be able to hold discussions on equal terms with such a variety of protagonists.
* Tim Berners-Lee, a British researcher, is the inventor of the World Wide Web.
Internet or Web, what’s the difference ?
While the Internet is a dataflow network (for electronic messaging, multimedia information, files, etc.) the Web (the short form of “World Wide Web”) corresponds to one of the applications using this network, the main one. The Web is a publication and document consultation system (for text, sound and images) that uses hypertext techniques for which the basic technology was perfected in 1989-1990 by Tim Berners-Lee and Robert Cailliau, who at the time were European researchers at CERN.