Monday, November 07, 2005

Do You Know Tim O'Reilly?

If you read yesterday's blog, you know that one of the founders of the Open Content Alliance (OCA) was O'Reilly Media.

Several times over the last six weeks, I've thought about posting a blog on Tim O'Reilly. However, other subjects kept taking precedence. The mention of his company yesterday prompts this column. Because if you don't know who Tim O'Reilly is, you should.

Facts first: Tim was born in Ireland in 1954, but grew up in San Francisco. He graduated from Harvard cum laude in 1975 with a B.A. in Classics. According to his own bio, his honors thesis explored the tension between mysticism and logic in Plato's dialogues. He's a sci-fi buff, and the first book he wrote was a biography of Frank Herbert (author of "Dune"). O'Reilly married an elementary school teacher he met when he was 18 and she was 25 (they're still married). In 1977, he became a technical writer and, in 1983, he started his own business--O'Reilly & Associates. According to an article in Wired Magazine last month, what happened then was "a small revolution in technical writing. The O'Reilly approach was to figure out what a system did and plainly describe how you could work around problems you encountered."

Wikipedia tells about a conference which MIT hosted in 1988: O'Reilly's company "was practically mobbed . . . for its preliminary Xlib manuals, an event which indicated there was an under-served audience for their kind of books." Because of this, O'Reilly's consulting firm became a publishing company.

In 1992, O'Reilly published "The Whole Internet User's Guide and Catalog," the first book about the web, which went on to become a phenomenal best-seller.

Since then, O'Reilly & Associates has become O'Reilly Media which modestly describes as "the premier information source for leading-edge computer technologies." Their manuals can be found on any programmer's bookshelf.

I'm not telling you all this to promote O'Reilly's stock. I'm telling you this to give you a sense of the man himself. His company created (and sold to AOL in 1995) the first web portal.

Wired describes O'Reilly's intuition this way: "O'Reilly's radar is legendary . . . It told him there was a market for consumer-friendly computer manuals and that he could build a great business publishing them. It helped him understand the significance of the World Wide Web before there were browsers to surf it. And it led him to identify and proselytize technologies like peer-to-peer, syndication, and Wi-Fi before most people had even heard of them at all. As a result, 'Tim O'Reilly's radar' is kind of a catchphrase in the industry."

Tim O'Reilly is one of the leading advocates of the open source approach. He coined the term "the architecture of participation" in referring to open source. He describes it simply: harnessing collective intelligence. He has served on boards, hosted conferences and written papers--all to promote an open source approach rather than a proprietary one. His company is now one of the founders behind the OCA effort. To me, that says everything I need to know.

Keep an eye open and an ear out for Tim O'Reilly.

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