The geeks shall inherit the earth

10 Apr 2007

Cork-born Tim O’Reilly is the founder and CEO of O’Reilly Media, one of the most successful computer book publishers in the world. He coined the phrase ‘Web 2.0’ and refers to his publishing empire as a “technology transfer company” that bases its success on spotting emerging trends.

He says of his success: “In any company, after a while you look at a history of what you have done and you try to understand what ties it all together. You know, if railroads had realised they were transportation companies, they’d be airlines today.”

Although he graduated from Harvard in 1975 with a Classics degree, he began writing technical manuals and it all took off from there. His company philosophy is to change the world by spreading the knowledge of innovators.

He is known for the famous ‘O’Reilly radar’, the ability to spot exciting new technologies before anyone else. “Back in 1992 we were able to say: ‘Wow! This worldwide web thing is going to be huge,’ and there were only a couple of hundred people doing websites at the time,” he recalls.

“I use this phrase: ‘Watching the alphageeks.’ I look at people who are ahead of the curve. I like to use this wonderful William Gibson quote: ‘The future is here, it’s just not evenly distributed yet.’ So typically, if you find the people who are most adept at a technology they are going to be ahead of their time. They can do something today that one day everybody will do.”

O’Reilly believes that the secret to a successful industry begins with people having fun. He cites the home computing industry, pointing out that the first home computer, the Apple 1, was made by a hobbyist in a woodshop.

“These guys were not people who said they were going to become titans of industry, they were just having fun. After enough people are having fun with it then other people start to realise that there’s really an opportunity here.”

Today he predicts a change in manufacturing due to what he calls ‘crowd sourcing’. Small companies can put their product ideas on a website and based on feedback and votes by visitors they can decide what to manufacture based on demand.

“We’re looking at floating concepts so you can understand demand before you spend a penny. All these things point to a world in which the manufacturing supply chain is going to be democratised profoundly.”

Many people have heard of Web 2.0 and most don’t understand the term or think it’s just a nebulous buzzword. O’Reilly says it’s all about harnessing the internet in new ways to build useful applications.

The term came about in a brainstorming session between O’Reilly and web pioneer Dale Dougherty. O’Reilly was looking at innovators in the software industry like Napster who were creating software for free and sharing it over the internet.

“I kept thinking about that, about how that was going to change the dynamics of first the software industry and then how network-enabled collaboration was going to take over.

“You’re going to find that this distribution of software becomes the norm but the value isn’t going to go away so people will try to figure out how to get value somewhere else. This leads to the development of large controlling databases, like Google AdSense, for example. So that is in fact what Web 2.0 is.”

O’Reilly is also excited by the indigenous technology culture that he feels we have built in Ireland. “One of the things that is wonderful about Ireland is that it’s got a great technical culture. It started out with a lot of technology companies outsourcing there for tax incentives, the fact that it’s English-speaking and has a great culture.”

He sees the move of assembly companies to places with a cheaper workforce as a good thing. “As companies relocate their assembly, people who’ve been in tech in Ireland will now say: ‘I’ve got to work for myself, so what do I do now?’, and ideally that will lead to new native Irish companies coming on the scene.”

He senses great opportunities for Ireland. “In many countries you see entrepreneurs who come up with a great idea and they have access to a global market. Skype is a good example of this and comes from Estonia, which is not exactly Silicon Valley. In the internet environment there is pretty equal worldwide access and this is a great opportunity for Irish entrepreneurs to make their visions come true.”

By Marie Boran

Pictured – Tim O’Reilly, CEO, O’Reilly Media

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