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Open Source

Video At Home with Tim O'Reilly (Videos 1 and 2 of 6) 11

Wikipedia says Tim O'Reilly "is the founder of O'Reilly Media (formerly O'Reilly & Associates) and a supporter of the free software and open source movements." And so he is. O'Reilly Media is also the company from which Make magazine and the assorted Maker Faires sprang, before spinning off into an ongoing presence of their own. (This year's Solid conference, as well as the confluence of hardware and software at OSCON demonstrate O'Reilly's ongoing interest in the world of makers, though.) O'Reilly has been a powerful force in technical book publishing, popularized the term Web 2.0, and has been at least a godfather to the open source movement. He's also an interesting person in general, even more so when he's hanging out at home than when he's on stage at a conference or doing a formal interview. That's why we were glad Timothy Lord was able to get hold of Tim O'Reilly via Hangout while he was in a relaxed mood in a no-pressure environment, happy to give detailed responses based on your questions, from small (everyday technology) to big (the Internet as "global brain").

We've run a few two-part videos, but this is the first time we've split one video into six parts -- with two running today, two tomorrow, and two Thursday. But then, how many people do we interview who have had as much of an effect on the nature of information transmission -- as opposed to just publishing -- as Tim O'Reilly? We don't know for sure, but there's a good chance that O'Reilly books are owned by more Slashdot readers than books from any other publisher. That alone makes Tim O'Reilly worth listening to for nearly an hour, total. (Alternate Video Links: Video 1 ~ Video 2; transcript below covers both videos.)

Timothy Lord: Really good. Perfect, there we go. Hey Tim first of all thanks very much for joining us today, I really appreciate it.

Tim O'Reilly: You're welcome I've been a fan of Slashdot for so many years I can't even count.

Timothy Lord: Well, it can't be more than seventeen I don't think.

Tim O'Reilly: Well it can't be more than seventeen I think. I still think you have the best tagline ever: 'News for nerds, stuff that matters'.

Timothy Lord: Well, we try to keep that.

Tim O'Reilly: Yeah.

Timothy Lord: So what we've done we've taken our reader questions and boiled them down to a list of ten and we're going to try to get them – whatever answers you feel like giving today we'll appreciate. Um we're going to start off with a question about your everyday interaction with technology. You don't live a flashy techno lifestyle like some people seem to, as far as I know, as this question says, you don't drive a Tesla around-

Tim O'Reilly: I do actually drive a Tesla.

Timothy Lord: You do! Alright well there we go, that's why these questions are good. So what do you, as someone who sees a lot of emerging ideas – what interesting bits of technology that you see as especially useful that you surround yourself with?

Tim O'Reilly: Well, I don't think I use anything more than the usual, you know I have a MacBook Air, I have an Android phone, I have an IPad, I have a Nexus 7, I have this new Samsung watch which is probably one of the nicer new things that I've sort of added to my gadget suite. What I find really great about it is, I used to always miss my texts and phone calls. It's really easy on the Android phones to turn off the sound by accident and you turn face in to protect the glass, the buzzer’s on the back, etc. etc., now my wrist buzzes, so that's a terrific thing but it's also a step counter. It is also a gateway into this new world of speech and Google Now, both of which I think are way, way more important than a lot of people think.

What Siri and Google voice recognition are doing is just the early stages of something that I think is going to be huge and there are a lot of implications to that. As we start talking more to our devices, as they start talking to us, the demands on UI change fairly dramatically and I'm already finding sometimes I'm sitting there dictating an email or a text to my phone, an email is even more dramatic, with my laptop right next to me because I was on my phone, it was like easy enough. There is a certain optimum length speech recognition in a noise free, high network environment is pretty good. I also find it useful for things like: Oh I'm looking for a quote from a book, I find it in a PDF and I realize: Oh wait I can just read it from my phone and that's the new voice equivalent of cut and paste.

But more than that, once I got the Moto X phone and now this watch, really speech is integrated in a whole new way. So, for example, you're driving – it's not just speech, it's also the sensors in the phone, so you're driving, it knows that you're driving because it can tell from the GPS and from the vibration and all these kind of different sensors, and so it puts you in driving mode. And so when you get a text, suddenly your phone talks to you. It says "You just received a text from Gem, would you like me to read it to you?" and you say "Yes" and it reads it to you or I can say "Text Gem, I'm going to be home late".

Timothy Lord: Now a watch is a fairly subtle and we're used to watches, where do you put Google Glass or other head worn things like that?

Tim O'Reilly: Well, the thing that I loved about Google Glass, I have one, but I don't really use it, was the immediacy of the camera and again not from the point of view – a lot of people were sort of paranoid, it's this privacy intrusion and come on it's like a) you can actually see the screen reflected when it's on and so all the time if you cannot see the reflected, it is off. So it's really about as visible as somebody picking up their phone and taking it. It's like once you get it tuned to the cues. So I don't think this idea am I being surreptitiously recorded is a real fear, but there was something wonderful about just being able to reach out, click, take that picture. And they've got that a little bit of that in the Moto X where you can just shake the phone and it goes right to the camera. You can touch anywhere on the screen, so moving towards that immediacy.

And I do think that there's this really interesting thing happening as people are exploring sensor driven UI, what you can leave out. I talked a lot about, for example, Uber, people don't think of it as an Internet of Things app and yet it is, it's because people are carrying GPS enabled phones that allow both the driver and the passenger to – it's like they're both augmented. And the way I kind of explain it, I go well what if the car were driverless, you'd be very clear that it was the Internet of Things. It's just human mediated. We're in this halfway house.

Timothy Lord: It's at what point there is a pilot or not?

Tim O'Reilly: Yeah. And so Google Now is the other half of that and I look at it and it's still kind of broken. It's like you're telling me that it’s an extra 15 minutes to go where I went yesterday. I'm not going back there, don't tell me that! So there's things like that but I love where they're going with that. I love the notion that we're starting to have anticipatory interfaces that are starting to think about looking at my patterns. And a lot of times it's like: okay I'm thinking of going into the office and it's normally 25 minutes and it suddenly tells me, it's 42 minutes, that's kind of awesome. With the addition of Waze, Google Maps is getting that same way, sometimes we're estimating well how bad is the traffic? Do we go this way or that way? And now Google kind of tells us, take the short cut effectively just by changing the directions. And so that anticipation strikes me as really important.

So that's why I really love the integration and I think Google Now is really central in the watch, it's really central in some of the newer Google phones and I think it's a beginning of something super interesting. But there's also kind of a thread and maybe this will come up in one of the later questions too, but might as well tackle it here, and that is: one of the things I've been thinking about a lot is that speech is effectively a return to the command line.

Timothy Lord: That's a fair way to put it.

Tim O'Reilly: And one of the things that I always loved about UNIX was the gradation between the command line and the programming via the shell, so that somebody tells the computer to do something once and then somebody says, "Hey, if you want to do that all the time, here's how you do it" and you write this little script and there was that and then for long, you're using [OC] and then you're using Perl and that was how it went in the old days. And I kind of think that same thing is going to happen with speech. So one of the things that I'm waiting to see and I've actually lobbied both Apple and Nuance and Google, when are you guys going to put together Siri or Google speech recognition with the equivalent of 'If This Then That', and have a...

Timothy Lord: Incantations of some kind.

Tim O'Reilly: Incantations and the fact that was so wonderful about the UNIX shell was that if you developed an incantation that you liked, you could save it and then it became a first class citizen.

Timothy Lord: And share it.

Tim O'Reilly: Yeah. And so, there's that notion of a) there is some set of internet objects now and again you do start to have that in the watch, like I can say "Okay, Google, call me a car." Sorry, it's going to do that because it's listening. Right now it only works with Lift. I don't use Lift, I use Uber, but once they hook up with Uber, “call me a car” is an incantation that the watch understands or actually Google understands, the watch just passes it through to Google. But there's a set of apps. Here I can say "Okay, Google, show me my heart rate, show me my steps, send a text, and in the first incarnation, it was send a text and then it was like "What the fuck?" It opened up the text messaging app, this is on the Moto X and now I got to type the text or hit the little microphone button, now it says "You didn’t input any-" because I can now say "send a text" followed by the text but if I don't send any, it's smart enough to say, "you didn't have any text, what would you like me to send?" So you're starting to get into this sort of – it's both interactive and the next step is programmable. I actually think this is probably one of the most underrated areas, people still kind of scoff at it, it doesn't work that well, but it's getting better fast enough that we really are moving not just into design beyond the screen, we're moving into design after the screen.

Timothy Lord: Now I want to jump back to a slightly different area, a little bit less future tech, let's say – some of our readers asked about electronic publishing. Now we're still putting information in readable form, there's one place where we don't want voice reading it to us, we want to be able to scan it visually and search, and one of our readers asked: what do you use – rather what do you see or expect in the future of electronic-centric publishing? This is something that you're a pioneer of, what are the trends when it comes to actually putting information in a way that's findable, scannable, discoverable?

Tim O'Reilly: Yeah. Well, I think your point of: 'findable, scannable, discoverable' is really a huge, part of the key. We have a generation that's come to expect that information is available online. It's available pretty easily and universally. When we launched Safari books online, our premise was the e-book was going to be a lot bigger than the print book, i.e. it would be a searchable library of all books. And of course that leads to a very different consumption pattern, because you can go kind of look for an answer to a question and it might be in three or four different versions of that answer, just like you have out on the web. And in order to do that you have to enable a big repository.

But we also find that as people get used to the notion of random access online and again, I'm talking really about the kind of books that we do first, informational or how-to, there's a whole class of search-driven behaviour, whereas like I need to know about this particular thing and I'm going to just go look. But there is a kind of learning behaviour and for that in a lot of cases video really becomes a first class citizen where people are saying, "I want to learn this. I want somebody to walk me through it. But just in general we found in our business as people moved more online, huge shift away from in print book sales, away from reference towards tutorial and then of course online we provided a really good reference product but also then increasingly a tutorial product and including more and more in Safari...

But when I look at the broader universe of e-books, one of the things that I always try to encourage publishers to think about is: what's the user need that you're satisfying? And it's very easy to lump things together because of the form factor that serve a completely different user need. I was like: yes we publish computer books and sure some people read them for entertainment, but we're weird, right? Actually I have to say this: my friend Mikey Dickerson who is one of the people who led the rescue team and is now just gone to head up this new US digital service in DC to try to [prevent] more healthcare.govs, he had a great t-shirt that he wore when he was doing a rescue which said, I think somebody gave it to him but it said: 'On the planet I come from I'm normal'. And so, yes, all of us nerds who read computer books for fun, we're weird but on our planet we're normal.

Timothy Lord: Sure.

Tim O'Reilly: But anyway the point I wanted to make was, like we used to publish things solely in books that people were going to for information and they looked like things that people would go use for entertainment. And so people said: well they're both books, but if you say, well, it's an entertainment product, then you're in a very, very different world. And I think that there's going to be a lot more blurring of the boundaries, and anybody who's in publishing has to actually think about 'well what job are you doing for your users?' And there's clearly people who've got this, who understand that Harry Potter is an entertainment franchise and it has all these aspects that might go all the way from a book, through a video game, movie, a theme park ride, Broadway show, whatever it might be. And that cross cutting I think is a great area for experimentation and I think so many people who are in the book business aren't thinking broadly enough. I think you see more of this from people coming – like Lego, I mean who would have thought that Lego would be producing movies and TV shows, but they've figured out: oh wait this is all part of a system and I think a lot of the revolution that's coming in what you could call publishing will come from a bunch of different directions of people who understand: I'm doing a job for a set of customers, what else do they want from me? How else can I deliver it? How can I make this whole thing a richer experience?

Timothy Lord: Now on that front, one way that O'Reilly books have distinguished themselves from some of the publishers is that you have made them available without DRM. That's another question that a reader raises is the music industry says that lack of DRM, when music doesn't have that, for instance, is hurting their bottom line a lot and it asks: do you feel the same way about your book titles? Why have you taken that tack?

Tim O'Reilly: Well, first off, I would say that I'm not sure the analogies between books and music are perfect.

Timothy Lord: Not at all.

Tim O'Reilly: Music first of all is consumed in much smaller increments, much more like free content is consumed online. I guess it was actually a shifty album roughly equivalent to the book, a bigger assemblage. But the thing that I guess I see is you have a set of people who are used to the idea that I should be able to consume this stuff easily, without barriers and so there's a set of expectations there and what the providers want doesn't really matter because if you don't satisfy user convenience, you're in trouble. And, the music industry waited too long. If they'd offered like an iTunes-like solution or a Spotify-like solution a long time ago, they would have been much better off. And I think for us at O'Reilly we did, that's what we did, we said users are going to want to have access to this when and where they want, we're going to try to make it as easy as possible, we're going to try to make it a compelling value proposition and people have actually taken us up on that.

But I think that there's a further dynamic and some segments of book publishing are a lot more like music publishing, in that they're very hit-driven and I do believe that in a hit-driven marketplace, your monitory returns are lower in a DRM-free environment. And the reason for that is – well actually I wrote it all up in a paper I wrote back in 2002 called "Piracy is progressive taxation." It's like "Hey this is the way the system works," when stuff is freely available people consume a wider range of content which is good for people who are lower on the content ladder, because people will consume more of their content than people who are already well known. Yeah, maybe some people will get the content for free who would have paid for it and so you do have – it's like the latest hit single , everybody wants to listen to it and they now have lots of alternatives to buying it, you're going to lose some money. On the other hand, if nobody ever heard of you, Spotify gives you all these amazing opportunities to get exposure and then people will pay you, so it's really one of these things where it benefits some people and it hurts some others and that's usually the way things work. And the intermediaries need to figure out how to adapt to that. There have been huge new intermediary opportunities that are based on the abundance model, where everything's available and again Apple's done it one way and people like Spotify have done it another but we're still in the early stages of figuring out the right business models.

Overall, I'm not really worried about – I could be wrong about this but I'm not really worried about content creators. If it gets to the point where people stop producing content that other people want because there's not enough value in it, then people will go "Oh, I got to pay for that".

Timothy Lord: Sounds like a self-correcting problem.

Tim O'Reilly: It is and again this is not like perfectly self-correcting in the sense that some things become harder to monetize because there's less demand for them and other things become easier to monetize, so it shifts consumption patterns. You think about classical music, there's probably not as many classical composers as there are people making popular music. But on the other hand I look at it and I go well, back in the day Franz Liszt was a rock star and the people who make classical music now aren't rock stars and maybe that's the problem.

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At Home with Tim O'Reilly (Videos 1 and 2 of 6)

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Never worry about theory as long as the machinery does what it's supposed to do. -- R. A. Heinlein