Tim O’Reilly to software developers: Get serious


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Computer-book publishing magnate Tim O’Reilly is urging young geeks to stop making software that lets you throw sheep at your friends on Facebook or drink beer on your iPhone and to instead start making a difference in the world. He is daring them, in the words of James Collins and Jerry Porras, authors of the business classic ‘Built to Last: Successful Habits of Visionary Companies,’ to take on ‘big, hairy, audacious goals.’

That is the theme of next month’s Web 2.0 Summit: ‘Web Meets World.’ And that has been the theme of O’Reilly’s addresses to the Web 2.0 faithful. (You can watch video of his keynotes in San Francisco this spring and in New York City last month.)


As we write in this story in today’s L.A. Times:

He says it’s not just the right thing to do, but also the smart thing to do -- especially as the credit crunch spreads to Silicon Valley, venture financing becomes scarce and start-ups have to retrench. [skip] O’Reilly argues that Silicon Valley has strayed from the passion and idealism that fuel innovation to instead follow what he calls the ‘mad pursuit of the buck with stupider and stupider ideas.’ Flush with money and opportunity following the post-dot-com resurgence, he says, some entrepreneurs have cocooned in a ‘reality bubble,’ insulated from poverty, disease, global warming and other problems that are gripping the planet. He argues that they should follow the model of some of the world’s most successful technology companies, including Google Inc. and Microsoft Corp., which sprang from their founders’ efforts to ‘work on stuff that matters.’

That might sound like empty rhetoric coming from some. But when O’Reilly talks, the tech world tends to listen.

After all, this is the guy who understood the power and significance of the Internet before most people knew it existed. O’Reilly helped coin the term ‘Web 2.0’ to refer to the next phase of the Internet built on bottom-up sharing and collective action. He’s the consummate matchmaker, bringing together great minds to work on great projects. He’s a successful blogger, entrepreneur (he sold a business to AOL for $11 million mostly in stock and options back in the day) and investor (he was an early investor in Blogger, which earned him pre-IPO Google shares when the search giant bought the start-up). And he runs an influential book publishing empire in Sebastopol, Calif., called O’Reilly Media, which has snared a significant share of the computer book market.

But he is perhaps best known in Silicon Valley for putting on packed conferences headlined by some of the tech industry’s brightest. Now he is using those conferences as a bully pulpit.

‘There are big problems to be solved,’ he told the audience in New York last month. And then he listed the problems: The financial meltdown. Global warming. Declining U.S. competitiveness. The spread of infectious diseases. The widening income gap and soaring health care costs. The dysfunctional political system. ‘These are pretty depressing times,’ he said.


Some forward-thinking philanthropists and entrepreneurs, corporations and nonprofits have already turned to the Internet and other modern-day technologies to tackle these growing problems, O’Reilly said. Now it’s time for others to step up and accept his 21st century version of 17th century French mathematician and philosopher Blaise Pascal’s wager: ‘Assume the worst, that the world is going to hell in a hand basket, unless we do something about it,’ he said. Even if the planet isn’t getting warmer, the innovation to cool it down will help make it a safer, happier place for all, he argued.

O’Reilly says he was spurred to action by his son-in-law, Saul Griffith, president and chief scientist at wind-energy company Makani Power, which is funded by Google. He and Griffith are considering holding hearings on global warming to pressure Congress to hold its own.

‘Saul could have done anything,’ O’Reilly said. ‘He has more ideas than you could shake a stick at. But for him it’s not about where he can make the most money. It’s about where he can make the most difference.’

-- Jessica Guynn