Innovation: The future of Web 2.0 is bigger and brighter than you think

(Tim O’Reilly, founder of O’Reilly Media)

If you’re feeling anxious about the state of the economy and technology, then there’s no better cure than having a conversation with Tim O’Reilly, founder of O’Reilly Media.

O’Reilly is one of those figures in Silicon Valley who has made a career out of stepping back and searching for the larger trends in technology and media that are going to reshape our lives. I talked to him on the eve of his fifth annual Web 2.0 Summit which starts today and runs through Friday. I’ll be there for a good chunk of it, and wishing I had time to stay for more.

I wrote a column about my conversation with O’Reilly that appeared in the Mercury News. But I wanted to share some additional pieces of it here as well.

I had wanted to talk to O’Reilly to get his sense of the state of Web 2.0, especially with conventional wisdom saying that many of these social start-ups are going to be toast. When I asked him about this, it set O’Reilly off, in a good way. He barreled through the 30 minute interview, showing a clear sense of excitement and passion about what comes next. My only regret is that I didn’t have the tape recorder running.

O’Reilly’s central theme was this: Web 2.0 was always bigger than some of the silly, trivial start-ups that have become associated with it. And if those become road kill, fine. Because the central concept is still going strong.

For O’Reilly, Web 2.0 is really the idea that the platform for our computing has shifted from the desktop to the network. It’s about how increasingly, everyone and everything is connected to one, vast network all the time. It’s about how the openness fostered by these networks will promote more sharing of knowledge. And it’s about the powerful effects that flow from that network as connectivity grows.

“What are the long-term trends?” O’Reilly said. “The Internet has become the new platform for computing. Is this going away? Do you think we’re done yet? No, this is just beginning.”

To dig deeper, read the paper O’Reilly wrote three years ago that maps out his vision of what Web 2.0 means. If you’re thinking that your newsroom can take a pass on social media because maybe is was just a fad, or that you shouldn’t focus on building networks for distribute your content, you’re making a big mistake. Those trends are only going to become more profound in the next few years. And that’s true whether or not some of these companies develop business models, or have IPOS, or whatever.

But it’s also worth hearing O’Reilly because the trend is evolving, as the Web begins to connect with the real, physical world. It’s hard to say how exactly news organizations should adapt to this concept. But it’s never too soon to start monitoring them and thinking about how that means you need to change with these new trends. I’ll elaborate on these in a second.

What’s impressive is that O’Reilly identified many of these themes at a time when many folks were still staggering from the dot-com bust. The feeling was the Internet failed to deliver on its promise to transform everything.

“What we originally proposed as an idea was kind of revolutionary,” O’Reilly said. “It was still the dot-com bust. The fundamental idea was that not only was the Web not over, it was entering a renaissance. It was a set of assertions that these companies matter. Today, that’s taken for granted. Everyone accepts that Google is the dominant company in this era of computing. The network is the platform. Web 2.0 as a concept has completely entered the mainstream.”

O’Reilly isn’t necessarily dismissive of all the social start-ups that have dominated the discussion in Sillicon Valley in recent years.

“I wouldn’t call them clutter,” O’Reilly said. “This is how we learn, through people trying things. It’s the diversity of life. There’s an explosion of things. And some of things will become dominant. I celebrate the entrepreneurs.”

The accuracy of that O’Reilly’s vision has nothing to do with the number of IPOs, or the amount of venture capital raised, or the number of start-ups launched. Rather, the underlying force of the idea, that the Internet is becoming even more deeply embedded in every corner of our lives is almost impossible to dispute.

That broader view of what Web 2.0 means will be reflected in the line-up of sessions and speakers over the three-day summit, which has been dubbed “Web Meets World.” The event is produced by O’Reilly Media and TechWeb, and is being moderated by John Battelle, founder of Federated Media.

If you show up expecting a line-up of companies trying to be the next Facebook, then you’d quickly realized you’d come to the wrong place. (Although Facebook founder Mark Zuckerberg is on the dance card.)

The more interesting speakers include Shai Agassi , founder and chief executive of Better Place, an Israeli company creating an open network to build a personal transportation system that eliminates dependence on oil. And then there’s Anne Wojcicki, founder of 23andMe, a genetic testing company that encourages people to share information about their genome and health in the hopes it will speed up drug development and enable personalized medicines.

This is what intrigues O’Reilly going forward. He’s watching how the virtual world of the Internet is now crossing into the physical world.

We can see this starting to happen with the inclusion of sensors in products like the iPhone. That’s creating a new potential set of data about or lives that could be ripe for someone to build on.

Then there are new buildings being wired so all their systems are connected to the Web. There are people connecting sensors to plants to know automatically when they need to be watered. There are electricity grids being re-made with the Internet inside to promote more efficient use of power.

“This idea of driving the network deeper and deeper into our world, that’s a big business driver,” O’Reilly said. “When I look at what we’re trying to do with the program, we’re trying to give people a glimpse of that.”

O’Reilly has made a career out of this kind of trend spotting. And he does it by spending a lot of time talking to the hacker community and observing the projects they’re developing.

“My core theme is not Web 2.0, per se,” O’Reilly said. “It’s really around the idea that hackers show us the shape of the future. It’s watching pre-commercial activity, people doing things for the love of it that drive things forward. They’re doing it for themselves. Smart companies look at that and see where the world is headed and get in front of it.

“These are people who do things because they love what they do. They’re not on a short time horizon. They’re not worried about an IPO next year. They’re not worried about funding. There are a lot of interesting projects that aren’t even funded. Funding can force growth before a project is really ready.”

So what are these hackers telling O’Reilly now?

“Hackers are increasingly engaging in the physical world,” O’Reilly said. “They’re realizing that stuff is more malleable than we think. We come to expect that computers will be malleable to our demands. Now people want their stuff be malleable.”

What does that mean for news and information from a news organization? Harder to say right now. I think it means folks are going to demand more customization and personalization of physical products, like the printed newspaper. It also seems like an area ripe for someone to re-imagine new ways to deliver news and information through these networks and they become even more integrated into the fabric of our lives. It probably opens up entire new avenues and patterns for the way people will get and consume news and information.

But the bigger point is this: If you think that all there is to Web 2.0 is a bunch of light-weight, ad-supported start-ups, if you think the game is really over, then you’re going to miss out on the even bigger transformation that lies ahead.

Finally, I’ll be posting occasional updates from the conference. In particular, I’m looking forward to a session on Thursday on, “The Media Business: New Approaches,” with Ken Auletta of the New Yorker, Joel Hyatt of Current TV, and Evan Williams of Twitter.

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One Response

  1. Thanks Chris, its great to get current information, American Samoa deserves to be part of this transformation….it will soon 🙂

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