The future is here

O'Reilly & Associates CEO discusses his roles as publisher, futurist, and activist

CEO TIM O'REILLY and the publishing company he founded, O'Reilly & Associates, are in the business of identifying emerging technologies, exploring their implications, and charting new directions for computing. InfoWorld Test Center Director Steve Gillmor met with O'Reilly at the recent JavaOne conference in San Francisco to discuss O'Reilly's roles as publisher, futurist, and activist.

InfoWorld: As part of your mission at O'Reilly & Associates, you were mentioning you felt a need to step out in front and take a stance -- an activist stance.

O'Reilly: Right. A lot of what we do at O'Reilly, first of all, is we watch what the hackers are doing and try to capture their knowledge in books, conferences, or whatever. But periodically we feel like we need to do something activist. And the activism is often when we see the stories in the media diverging from the reality. We did that back with open source -- people were missing a big story. They were talking about Linux but they weren't realizing that there were all these other programs that were providing a big part of the Internet infrastructure. In this environment right now, [after] some initial excitement about Web services, a lot of misinformation [is] starting to be spread around. We hear news like Microsoft just figured out they don't know how they're going to make money, so they're going to have to go slow. And meanwhile, the hackers are in fact progressing apace. And so I thought, well, I've got to start letting people know that [Web services are] happening and are going to happen, and you can either get with it or you can wake up a year from now and go, darn, I missed that market.

What I see happening is a combination of factors that are just starting to come together. And the fundamental change is that connectivity is no longer an exception. [When] there's a paradigm shift that happens over a period of time, a sort of signal event [will occur and] all of a sudden you'll look back and go, oh, it was obvious, it was actually happening for quite some time, but now we really know it. A lot of people are still effectively thinking PC; they're mired in the PC era. And it's like the way the PC was off the radar [when] a lot of the big computer companies in the mainframe era saw it as a toy. They didn't realize that it was the future. That's why in ["Inventing the Future,"] I started off with this great quote from William Gibson: "The future is here, it's just not evenly distributed yet." So you start looking around and you say, well, what are these signs of the future? And they're oddball little signs, these little clues.

For example, we host [developer] summits from time to time and one of the guys, Kevin, works on speech synthesis, an open-source project called Festvox. Another guy was working on the Freenet project, which is a peer-to-peer file-sharing system. And the Freenet guy says [to Kevin], "You sound familiar." And Kevin says, "Yeah, well I do Festvox." And the guy goes, "Oh, that's it. I listen to you all the time -- I pipe IRC to Festvox so I can listen to [chat] in the background while I'm coding." So these hackers [are] already living in this world where the idea of routinely converting some text flow to speech [is real]; he's living in a multimodal application future. He's getting this stuff off the Net, and he's converting it to something else. That's not related to this Web services thing, but it is one of those little signs. The hackers tend to be out front; they're using the tools that are available now in ways that other people are going to be using them routinely three or four years from now.

InfoWorld: Similarly, what about your point regarding Weblogs, that Weblogs are the tip of the iceberg in the content management space but also they're an extension of the kinds of communities that have evolved on the Internet?

O'Reilly: [It] has to do with watching the grassroots. It's very easy to get into watching the technology press, which is often influenced by the technology marketing of big companies. [But] there's a lot of really interesting information that comes when you watch what early adopters are doing. They might be entrepreneurs, and what they're working on is going to be next year's product announcement. Or maybe they're open-source hackers who are doing interesting things because they're really good at what they do and it seems obvious to them that [something] ought to be possible. Coming back to the idea of Web services, I see a lot of people who are saying that we're not quite sure how this market is going to take off. And I'm convinced it's going to take off. The hackers are already treating the Internet as this global data resource and they're building Web services however they have to. And right now, a lot of the time that means somebody doesn't provide a Web services interface to their data. But they have a big database-backed Web site. And somebody says, "Well, with all this great data there, I'm going to go get it." And so they're doing screen scraping. They'll download the page, figure out what data they want, and throw away the rest -- sort of unauthorized, brute-force Web services.

InfoWorld: They're authorized by implication. That's why the material is being presented on the Web for free.

O'Reilly: But there are issues. For example, there is a tradition of the robots.txt file that says don't search this file, don't search this Web space. And so people might say don't spider me. But I don't think that's stopping [it].

When you look at the advanced hackers, what they see is this data out there. Web services are really about data, in a lot of cases. I'm not saying that that's not an interesting market -- it'll develop over time and there'll be a lot of money [in it]. But what's interesting is the development of a market in which ... I always like to talk about the architecture of unintended consequences. The original Internet made it possible for people to build independent services without knowing each other, without having to enter into a contract. They just built the service, somebody else figured out how to use it. Similarly, in the original Unix architecture, the whole idea of pipes and filters was that I'll write a program and because everybody knows what the output is going to be -- it's going to be an ASCII stream written in this particular way - [and] they can build some other program that will take it and transform it and use it. So Unix was built as a Tinker Toy or Lego kind of environment. As we look at Web services, I'm interested in seeing that same kind of market development.

InfoWorld: Is this close to Dave Winer's bootstrapping metaphor?

O'Reilly: In a lot of ways. To me, the thing that's interesting in the technology market is that some architectures encourage participation by developers and others are command-and-control architectures. A lot of the focus in open-source discussions on licensing misses the point. Open source is a lot about architecture: Does this system architecture let someone hack it easily, or is hacking hard? If hacking is easy, then you get a lot of people who are experimenting. And a lot of those experiments later get replaced by technologies that take those hacks and make them accessible to more people. [For example], the original Web was for putting out pages with links. [Then] somebody came along with the idea of allowing dynamic content. So we got CGI. A lot of the early CGI stuff was pretty crude, but before long that little loophole, as it exploded with people building all kinds of dynamic sites, is where the Web got really juicy. Then you had the introduction of ASP, ColdFusion, a whole bunch of languages that made building dynamic sites much simpler for ordinary developers. And in a similar way we're at this stage right now where the advanced developers, the hackers, are effectively building Web services that mix data from different Internet sites. The next step, of course, is for people to come along and say, "We'll make this easier, we'll make it possible for your garden variety developer [or] power user to start doing these things."

InfoWorld: Isn't that the impetus behind the commercial vendors going to the portal space?

O'Reilly: Absolutely. A lot of Web services aren't about technology, but about data. The screen scraping is a clue to what people are trying to do with that data. I know one guy who built a carpooling planning service. Because MapQuest can give addresses and routes, he built something where you take the roster for the company [and find] carpool companions. It would look up people within a certain distance from you. Other things are in MapQuest data [that] you could imagine, for example, being supported as a feature in a program like Excel. When I fill out my expense report and I want to put in the mileage from one location to another, I'd go to MapQuest. I don't want the map, I don't want the address, I just want the distance, [and] here's this engine that could produce that directly. Similarly, there are all kinds of other things [Amazon] is good for. You could easily imagine building a service that, when you're doing that term paper and you get to the bibliography, [takes your] list of titles and authors and fills in all that other stuff.

InfoWorld: By spidering Amazon?

O'Reilly: We'll just call it from a big public database of books.

InfoWorld: And that leads to your discussion about the business models, the relationships, the contracts that will emerge?

O'Reilly: What I worry about is that companies are going to start out saying, "We don't know how we're going to make money, so we'd better not do anything." And what I encourage people to think about is creating at least some low-volume options. It might be anonymous. But it could be authenticated to some extent. You sign up, and you get an ID, which you provide [when you access the service]. That would allow somebody who has the data to say, "Wow, somebody's using me a lot. I'd better talk to them." The overhead of setting up the service is the barrier to entry of the market -- if in fact you have to negotiate with someone. I want to see Web services APIs where somebody says, "OK, I have data, you want data. You can sign up pretty easily and we'll give you a data feed. But we'll only give you, say, 1,000 queries a day. If you're using more than that, we want to talk to you." That might be one way to do it. There may be others.

InfoWorld: One of the things that we've been seeing is Web services beginning to emerge from the lab or from the hacker environment as you're suggesting -- as a second or middle tier of aggregators who are, for example, acting as trusted intermediaries between small companies. Does that fit into this vision?

O'Reilly: In some sense aggregation is a fundamental Web service. You can see this even in aggregators like search engines. If I want to find certain types of data, I'd rather spider Google than spider all the original sites because [Google has] already done some chunk of the work for me. You see how various types of aggregators have become destinations. And this is, again, where people are missing how many Web services are already there; they're just not standardized. Look at IMDb [Internet Movie Database]. Or look at CDDB [CD database]. CDDB is a great example. It was originally built as an aggregation of a whole lot of data users were contributing, and they eventually realized they had a pretty valuable database. Now when you go to burn a CD and [the software] says, "would you like me to go look up the track IDs?" Well, that's a Web service. It's an application that's getting some of my data routinely over the Net.

InfoWorld: I know this is a little off track, but that example starts to collide with the issue of hijacking ports -- the peer-to-peer ports on the network. Do you see that as being an impediment to your low-cost freeware idea?

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