Reagle will run this meeting, since it relates to his area. Main points are already listed on the Web, and they appear on the big screen, which Swick is controlling via his keyboard. Berners-Lee and the others also have a small window open on their laptops showing IRC (Internet Relay Chat) a private, typed chat line. As it often does, W3C has souped up this tool for its own purposes, in part to test how far it can push current technology. Each time a participant speaks, Swick types their name and summarizes their comment, which appears in the IRC window of staffers in Cambridge and abroad who have dialed into it over the Internet. That way, they can monitor what's happening, and type in their two cents. Many staffers keep various IRC channels open all day in their offices, to track proceedings taking place worldwide.
"Joseph, it's Danny," a voice cracks in over the speakerphone. "Could you explain the changes in the semantics document?" After several minutes of fast-paced technical discussions the extant group gets stuck. Berners-Lee, who has been quiet, rallies the troops. "We have to work through this rat hole," he encourages. He streaks through a dizzying array of technical points, gesturing excitedly, his eyes glistening and his tone exuberant. Swick can't keep up and simply stops typing. The others, experts themselves, listen in rapt silence to the master. The speakerphone is quiet too. After a contemplative pause, Swick says, "That’s exactly it, isn't it?" Berners-Lee answers with a spirited, "Voila!"
The discussion moves on. One staffer from Europe suggests an unusual technical idea. Berners-Lee stiffens, leans toward the speakerphone, and in a stern voice says, "But that is a philosophical difference." He parses his lips, "Shkkkkkkkk!," emitting a harsh noise like that of a loud, scrambled TV picture. The message: The Web's underpinnings are not up for discussion.
The group takes up a new topic. Berners-Lee, again inspired by the technical, stalks around the room looking for markers. He starts scribbling circles and arrows on the whiteboard. Swick, alarmed, hauls out a pressure-sensitive tablet and begins trying to re-create Berners-Lee's scrawls so they will appear on the extant members' screens. "Tim's drawing on the whiteboard," Reagle announces to the speakerphone participants, with a hint of admonition. "Oh, sorry," Berners-Lee says, realizing they can't see what he's doing.
But he continues, first in black, then red. "You know I can't do color," Swick appeals. "Sorry," Berners-Lee replies without stopping. LaLiberte says, "Hey, Janet, why don't you take a picture of it?" She points her laptop, which has a digital-camera lens embedded in its frame, at the whiteboard and presses a key. It beeps. She enters an address for the image, then sends it to the Web site for the others to see.
And so the meeting goes. The staffers question and argue collegially. Berners-Lee, quiet for stretches, lights into animated passions when technical points need clearing up, and corrects when fundamentals are in danger of being violated. Otherwise, he redirects the disciples when needed with his throaty wheezes and whistles. After two hours the powwow is over. The staffers unplug their laptops and trickle out. Reagle will slightly redirect the working group. Berners-Lee and I head back to his office.
Janet Daly soon appears outside his door and announces that the popular National Public Radio program "Fresh Air" has just come on, which today features a half-hour conversation with Berners-Lee. But he doesn't tune in because we're talking, and that would be a rude self-indulgence.
For an individual who has been ranked alongside Johann Gutenberg and Thomas Edison, Berners-Lee remains remarkably humble. Some of that is cultural, says CERN's Peggie Rimmer, herself from England. "It's a very British sort of attitude. Tim doesn't see himself as a big, fanciful chap. He finds it embarrassing to boast." He also shows respect for everyone. "There's nobody too little or too big to merit a different approach," Rimmer says.
Berners-Lee's even-handedness may arise from a compelling ability to keep life in perspective. He works at home two half-days a week in part to be closer to his family. He's careful to protect his privacy. He won't talk to journalists about his personal life. All he will say is, "Work is work. Home is home."
Rimmer, as much a friend as a former superior, understands his motivation. "Tim feels strongly that every member of his family should get their due attention. How can his kids grow up to become themselves, if the focus is always on Tim, 'the guy who invented the Web?' He wants to enjoy time with them in social environments that are as ordinary as they can be."