It’s been 17 years since Tim Berners-Lee created the World Wide Web. At the time, he was an unknown young researcher at the physics lab Cern. Today, he is a famous knight and the web has transformed our lives, turning the world into a village and becoming a critical source of information that is accessible at the click of a button on your desktop and palmtop. From humble beginnings — with just one page and one site — the internet now has more than 100 million websites and more than 8 billion pages accessible to the public.
Time for Berners-Lee to launch another revolution. Now, the man who has fought to keep the web open, free and wholly public wants to make it truly accessible. Only 20% of the world’s population is able to use the web at present. The rest cannot read or write English. The problem is even bigger in India, where over 380 million people cannot read or write in any language. It’s the largest concentration of illiterate people anywhere in the world. How can these people ever hope to access the web and benefit from this technology?
It is a knotty issue and it is preoccupying Berners-Lee, currently director of The World Wide Web Consortium (W3C), which oversees the web’s development. “Has the web been designed by the West for the West?” he asks. Has it been designed just for the executive and the urban teenager with smart phones in their pockets? Not at all.
Last week, the father of the web announced the formation of World Wide Web Foundation. Its aim is to promote “one web that is free and open; to expand the web’s capability and robustness; and to extend the web’s benefits to everybody on the planet,”' he says. The foundation, which includes business leaders, technology innovators, academia, government, NGOs, and experts from various fields, will fund specific projects. Berners-Lee envisions that the next phase of the web will be transformed by three developments — “technology innovation, web science and the application of the web for the benefit of under-served communities”.
W3C has already started the process of developing protocols and standards to improve net accessibility. There are some exciting developments that are coming to a computer screen near you very soon:
Giving the web a voice
Voice commands are a boon for the illiterate, the physically handicapped and those who cannot use the keyboard or mouse. They can use the spoken word to open websites and search for information. Web pages would be speech-enabled — that means the page itself will read out the information.
“In a country like India, where the literacy rate is only 61%, many people can benefit from this feature,” says S Ramakrishan, director general, Centre for Development of Advanced Computing (C-DAC). An active member of W3C till June, C-DAC is developing India-specific software.
Google, the popular search engine, has already introduced a voice-based feature for their Indian mobile platform. With increasing mobile penetration, such features help first-time users access the web even in remote areas. In Delhi and Hyderabad, mobile users can use voice search on Google. “The information will be available both in English and their regional language,” says Vinay Goel, country head of products, Google India.
Once the voice-enabled features are fully operational, the potential is huge — an uneducated farmer can surf the web for crop information, weather forecasts, grain prices or even do his banking. Illiterate parents can help their children with homework by accessing the web with voice commands.
Efforts are also on to develop software on speech synthesis for the benefit of the visually impaired. Other interactive features such as touch-screen icon-based pages are also being readied for launch. Google Labs has created ‘Accessible Search’, which is designed to identify and prioritise web search results for the visually handicapped.
Go local for global reach
At present, the web can be accessed in 126 languages. Style sheets and character maps for various other languages and their fonts are being developed. In a few years, domain names will also be available in different languages. In India, C-DAC has introduced web access in some regional languages, including Hindi, Sanskrit, Maithili, Bangla, Punjabi, Tamil and Telugu. Once all 22 official Indian languages are introduced as web languages, millions more Indians will be able to access the net. “Eventually, even dialects will be incorporated,” says Ramakrishna.
Syntax for search
When you type a sentence into a search engine, it picks out individual words, not the whole sentence and spews out information based on each word separately. W3C has set up a working group to develop the semantic web, that’s an extension of the World Wide Web. The semantic web would help the search engine consider the whole sentence entered in the search engine. What's more, information will be available in various languages as well. Ramakrishna says, “The semantic web is about common formats for integration and combination of data from diverse sources.” For the layman, it means information delivered in a consolidated manner.
On the wall
“In the future, the web will seem like it is everywhere, not just on our desktop or mobile devices,” predicts Berners-Lee. With LCD technology becoming cheaper, walls will become surfaces for displaying web information. A lot of this information will be in speech format, so that even a child can access it. As Berners-Lee says, a ubiquitous web will shape the nature of public spaces where we work, shop and socialize in the future.
6 months ago