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The O'Reilly Radar

by Tim O'Reilly
Apr. 27, 2003

I hate it when reporters misrepresent what I say. I get things wrong quite often enough on my own! So I was quite disappointed to read the following on Slashdot this morning:

O'Reilly Points Towards Next 'Killer App'

Extreme Tech has this article in which Tim O'Reilly, the man behind every geeks favorite tech manuals, points toward four major leading indicators that will predict the next likely 'killer app' to emerge from the hacker community. They are: Amazon.com web services (2) BARWN (3) Hardware hackers and (4) online gaming communities.

I was hoping that it was just slashdot that had got it wrong. Unfortunately, the Extreme Tech article was summed up pretty accurately. It got a lot of the details right about my "O'Reilly Radar" talk at the Emerging Technologies Conference -- I do in fact think that amazon web services, wireless community networking, the renaissance of hardware hacking, and the separation of online gaming communities such as Phank from their original game environments are indeed interesting. But the article put them in the wrong context, and managed to miss the real point.

I don't think that any of these things are "killer apps", nor do I think that they are the only interesting things going on. The point of my talk was to take four things that I find interesting right now, four things that people might not see as related, and to show the common threads that put them on my radar.

Here's why I singled them out: Each of them represents the hacker impulse, people pushing the boundaries of a system and coming up with innovations that the original creators didn't imagine. In my introduction to the session, I outlined some of the key elements that put technologies on my radar: hackability, being in line with some major trend (such as the increase in ubiquitous networking), disruptive potential, grassroots enthusiasm rather than top-down corporate promotion but still the presence of professional practitioners and a possible business ecology.

After this introduction, I asked Rob Frederick, creator of Amazon Web Services, to show us some of the cool things their users are doing. Then we heard from Matt Peterson of the Bay Area Wireless Research Network (BARWN) about some of the creative ways that they are "unwiring" San Francisco, and building low-cost wireless hardware that can be deployed outdoors. After that, we heard from Bunnie Huang of Xbox hacking fame about what he's been up to and why he risks being sued under the DMCA. And finally, we heard from RIT professor and blogger Andy Phelps about how gaming communities such as Phank are starting to travel from game to game, building community web sites for conversation outside the game, supporting themselves by selling merchandise and even by building up characters and reselling them on EBay.

All of these things are cool and provocative, and indicative of where technology wants to go. Amazon web services show that major sites like amazon, google and Ebay aren't just web applications, they are potentially technology platforms that can harness hacker enthusiasm and inventivenees. Groups like BARWN show that the "last mile problem" may be solved by the users themselves rather than by huge telco investments. Hardware hackers like Bunnie show that we can think about hardware re-use as well as software re-use, and that as hardware becomes cheaper and more ubiquitous, it can be a creative part of the inventor's toolset. And the way that gaming groups are bursting the bounds of their games--even in games as tightly controlled as EverQuest (where Phank got started)--shows that the "hacker impulse" can't be contained. The "alpha geeks" show us where technology wants to go. Smart companies follow and support their ingenuity rather than trying to suppress it.

There are many other technologies that are also on my radar. I chose these four to highlight precisely because they seem so disjoint, yet to me show all of the characteristics that make a technology worth following by O'Reilly.

Tim O'Reilly is the founder and CEO of O’Reilly Media Inc. Considered by many to be the best computer book publisher in the world, O'Reilly Media also hosts conferences on technology topics, including the O'Reilly Open Source Convention, Strata: The Business of Data, the Velocity Conference on Web Performance and Operations, and many others. Tim's blog, the O'Reilly Radar "watches the alpha geeks" to determine emerging technology trends, and serves as a platform for advocacy about issues of importance to the technical community. Tim is also a partner at O'Reilly AlphaTech Ventures, O'Reilly's early stage venture firm, and is on the board of Safari Books Online, PeerJ, Code for America, and Maker Media, which was recently spun out from O'Reilly Media. Maker Media's Maker Faire has been compared to the West Coast Computer Faire, which launched the personal computer revolution.

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