Steve Bratt, CEO of New World Wide Web Foundation, Details Plans To Make the Web More Usable in the Developing World

Only 25 percent of adults around the world have access to a computer that they can use to reach the Web. But 75 percent have access to a mobile phone. So the simplest way to open up the wealth of information on the Web to more people would be to make it usable via voice connections—for instance, through some combination of speech synthesis and speech recognition technologies and voice-driven interfaces customized for each region.

Making that happen will be the first mission for the new World Wide Web Foundation, officially launched November 15 by Tim Berners-Lee, the inventor of the Web and the director of the Cambridge, MA-based World Wide Web Consortium (W3C). Berners-Lee unveiled the foundation’s plans in a speech before the Internet Governance Forum, a non-governmental organization meeting this week in Sharm El Sheikh, Egypt. (Watch the video.)

It was 20 years ago this year that Berners-Lee proposed the Web’s basic markup language (HTML), its data protocol (HTTP), and its system of document addresses (URLs). “The thing that made the Web work then and the most important thing about it today is its universality,” Berners-Lee said in his speech. “Two Webs doesn’t work. It has to be one Web for all sorts of information, no matter what hardware you have, no matter who you buy your computer from, and now more importantly, no matter what sort of device you have.”

Steve Bratt, CEO of the World Wide Web FoundationThe basic tenet behind the Web Foundation is that the Web can empower people around the world to help themselves, if only barriers of language, literacy, location, and income can be overcome. The foundation’s first efforts in this direction will include support for an emerging discipline it’s calling “Web science,” as well as collaborations with VU University in Amsterdam and the Center for Digital Inclusion in Brazil focusing on the deployment of Web-based mobile communications technologies among farmers in Africa and schoolchildren in South and Central America and elsewhere.

A non-profit founded in 2008 and operating largely under the radar until now, the Web Foundation is subsisting for the time being on a five-year, $5 million seed grant from the John S. and James L. Knight Foundation. The organization (which is not using the acronym WWWF, perhaps to avoid confusion with the World Wildlife Fund and the World Wrestling Federation) is headquartered in Geneva, Switzerland. But its CEO, Steve Bratt—formerly the CEO of the W3C—is working from a newly opened office in Boston’s downtown financial district.

Bratt met with Xconomy on Monday morning for his first detailed Q&A session about the creation of the Foundation, the philosophy of its early projects, and his and Berners-Lee’s ambitious plans for making the Web more accessible. Part 1 of our interview appears here; we’ll publish Part 2 on Wednesday.

Xconomy: What’s the mission of the World Wide Web Foundation, and how is it different from the mission of the World Wide Web Consortium?

Steve Bratt: Our overarching theme is empowering people through the Web—giving people the power through the Web to accomplish their own goals. It’s about helping people, not just having cool technologies. You never hear Tim Berners-Lee give a talk without … Next Page »

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Wade Roush is a freelance science and technology journalist and the producer and host of the podcast Soonish. Follow @soonishpodcast

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