An Istanbul breakfast with Tim O'Reilly

It all began with a tweet; "Just arrived in Istanbul for #occrp meeting. Staying at the lovely Antalya hotel with a view of the sea of marmara. Now out for a ramble Tim O'Reilly"

I asked if he would care for an interview, to my surprise he kindly accepted, even introduced us to OCCRP people, stating that we are from "Turkish Slashdot", which made us feel both proud and overinflated :)

Let me say that all the blunders are mine (especially not mentioning more about OCCRP guys who are doing a wonderful job) while all the provacative thoughts belong to Mr. O'Reilly (of course I do not refer to the Fox Tv Guy :)

We enjoyed talking with him, I hope you enjoy reading it. (Bu uzun röportajın deşifresini ancak bitirebildim, bu yüzden daha fazla bayatlamadan çevirmek için beklemeyip yayınlayalım istedik. Türkçe halini (referanslar eklenmiş olarak) kısa süre sonra yayınlamayı umuyoruz.)

Kıvılcım Hindistan: Hello Mr. O'Reilly, first of all thank you for accepting this short notice interview request. We once even invited you to our Open Source Conference that was held in Bilgi University back then, but we could not communicate.

KH: The thing is that, what we are just amateur journalists but what we lack in journalism, we hope to make up by being professional geeks.

Tim O'Reilly: Ahaaa

KH:We mainly know you as a publisher. One of the key people, behind most of the technologies of Internet and technical books about such.

But in the last few years, we realized that you are more into something else, like this conference over here or like expoditing the future or something like that. Would you be kind enough to briefly explain your personal mission?

TO: Well in some sense I think I always had the same mission, it just became clearer over time. We started out writing and then publishing other people's technical books. And I realized that the technologies we are writing about were very important. So I started pretty early about being a technology activist. So for ex. in 1992 when we first published on the Internet there was a book called the The Whole Internet Users Guide and Catalog. We featured about the World Wide Web even though there were only about 200 sites at the times, but we thought it was really important. We went out and started evangelizing the Internet, saying how important it was. We gave away books to every member of US Congress.

KH: US Congress?

TO: Yeah. And I gave a speech to all the congressional aids about how the Internet thing was coming. So even than I was advocating about big ideas.

In the late nineteens I realize all my best selling books were about softwares written by individuals and people were not giving much credit to this movement that later called as Open Source movement.

So in some sense you could say that I've shifted but in other ways I think I'm still doing what I've always done, which is advocate for interesting features.

KH:Nice explanation.
TO: You know there is this wonderful line by science fiction writer William Gibson, he says that "The future is here, it is just not evenly distributed yet."

You know so, if you work with geeks a lot, you are living in the future for a lot of people. You are living with the Internet, you are having a certain experience, software developers are doing collaboration over the network for Open Source. If you think what people on the cutting edge of technology are doing you get a lot of insight about what everybody is gonna be doing in the future.

KH: That is also what Gibson mentions about Japan. He says Japan is so that way into technology that we can actually see what is in the future by looking at them.

TO: Right, that is really a good point.

KH: There is a special trend that we came across, like in those glorious years of Free Software, like 2002 to what 2006-7? Everything was blooming, like Slashdot, all those networks and such. After that came some big successes like Ubuntu, it was a game changer like Happodo, Cassandra which made cloud possible. But at the same time we saw that the community began to decline. Like it was not so news anymore or people were not so much into IRC talking about geek stuff and such. What do you think that was caused by?

TO: About Open Source specifically. I think one of the things that a lot of of people do not realize is how much the OS was the reflection of the architecture of Unix. People had to have the source code because the hardware was so fragmented. It was sure the political Free Software ideology. But lot of the desire for source code was "Hey I wanna run this software and the only way to run is if you give me the source code. PC had a shareware or freeware community that shipped binaries. People who wanted the software did not mess up with the source code. Of course once you get to the Internet there is this big driver of this getting functionality for free which does not require source code.

I think lot of people don't realize too was you know there is this idea about Free Software would win. I started talking about, I remember having this conversation with Richard Stallman in Berlin 1999 I started really saying "Hey it is not gonna work out the way you think. When Free Source wins, some thing else will become proprietary. Because that is the way that world works. I kind of crystallized those ideas in a paper I wrote in 2003 called the Open Source Paradigm Shift, which was really recursive into my Web 2.0 thinking.

Actually this goes back even earlier. I spent lots of time thinking about IBM computer, what we can learn from it. You know, it was 1997 my very first talk about opensource, later was written down a paper as Hardware, Software and Infoware. And it was really about Internet was becoming an application development platform. It was different than traditional software and ı can't develop that idea over the years. It was not just really software. How were people actually using Perl for example on the web. So I talked to one of my authors Jeff Fridel, who wrote a book about regular expressions, "What do you do in Yahoo?" and he said "Well I write regular expressions to match up new stories to ticker? self. Then I began thinking about the idea that a lot of these web applications were like Mechanical Turks, you know where they had people inside them doing things, it was not like you built the software artifact and it just ran forever. You had business processes inside these applications and people inside the applications like this famous Mechanical Turk chess player that had a man inside.

So that was kind of the idea that these applications were a lot different than the applications that we run in PC's. But it was also this idea that just as IBM PC computer had basicly monetized hardware and software became very valuable. IBM did not understand that but Microsoft did. The same is gonna happen with Open Source software in the open protocols of the Internet. The Internet protocols and Open Source will commoditize software and the value will go out of software, but it would not go away, it will go some place else. So I started thinking about "Where is it going?" and I came to the idea that it was going to the data, big collections of data often collected from user contributions. You look for example at Google, you know they basicly harvest all the Web and they algorithmically do various things to it. So that kind of led me to Web 2.0 kind of thinking about collective intelligence and big data and so on. That is kind of the world we are living in.

So that kind of relates to your question about what happened. You know OS is still very important, the same way that computer hardware is still very important. But the focus and the energy the developers moved on and the value is captured in these Internet applications that allow people to harness that collective activity. So...

KH: They began to have babies may be :)

TO: Well that too. But there are still lots of young developers. Web developers are from a different generation. They do not need source code the same sense. They still do OS but they are not religious about it at all. And the projects are different.

KH: No more OS, Free Software debate may be?
TO: Yeah, they don't really care about that, as long as they have the code. They shift the web api's. So over all the culture moved on a little bit, but it is still over there.

Alper Tuna: Can I take some pictures?
TO: Of course.

KH: After we decided on the interview yesterday we came up with many questions. And you being a Twitter enthusiast already answered two of those questions. One in the Fortune article. Something very interesting for me. You being an ebook publisher, said that you did not much care about "that kind of copyright" like you said "if 10,000 people would read me, I'd rather have 10,000 people buy my books but let 100,000 read.". That was very open minded.

TO: Yeah, we always gave away books you know, when we got returns from big book chains that we could not sell we would donate them.

KH: Like that bakery store huh?
TO: That's right, we would donate them, some people would be able to use them. We gave them away we sent books over to Eastern Europe, we sent to Africa. Because it seemed us that"better to be used than to be turned away." Those people are not gonna pay us. People understand that if they do not pay us at all, we won't be able to keep doing what we do. So some people will pay us, but some people will be using them for free but that is not the end of the world.

You know I read a paper in 2002 called "Piracy is progressive taxation"

KH: Wow, it is nice.

TO: You know it is really is. That is another element to it. IF you are not very well known, giving away free copies is a way to become visible. Free helps people to become more visible, get more read, get more opportunity. People at the top yeah may be that reduces their sales a bit, but they can effort it. So that is the way I think about it. Overall I use the analogy of "dumpster diving". You know you can go get a lot of stuff for free but people will eventually start paying, because it is just more convenient. as long as the price is fair.

Lot of what we are doing right now is price discovery. What is the right price to maximize the revenue. We are doing that in music, we are doing that in books. That is how market progress, you have to learn what people are willing to pay. What we see is that with lower prices are offset by the fact that we have lower distribution costs and we are selling in markets that we could not sell before. Something like %30 are print books but 60% are ebooks in the oversea markets. So we get a lot of sales from markets that we could not sell print books.

KH: You began this with those CD Bookshelf Series. That was wonderful. It was way ahead of what was current back than.

TO: Yeah we were trying, we had this strategy... Wow a film camera (He saw the analog, reflex camera that my friend was using) You know that has been a while.

We had the idea that we get people used to reading electronic books and than we launch a subscription service for this CD Bookshelves we were trying to get the people used to.

KH: As we very well know you are like one of the founding fathers of Web 2.0. How about the Government 2.0? Or of its relations with the current unrest in Middle East?

TO: I think the jury is still out. The future does not go with straight lines but it is pretty clear that the culture of the net is very different from the culture of before. You know people have tools for sharing information, for collective action which were not available before. We still have to figure out how it works. It has pluses and minuses. For example we had protests in Burma and those police used YouTube videos to track down and arrest and kill protesters. There was a negative site.

It is probably happening is Syria as well. At the same time we have the ability to organize, that we did not have before.

I'd say this is about idea of Gov 2.0. I tried to use the idea of Web 2.0 to start getting people in Government to think a little differently about what they are doing with technology and there are several aspects to it. One is the use of social media for politics and for organising. But there is an other idea I focus on. Web 2.0 is really about the Internet as a platform. I sort of asking what kind of governments learn from what the Int .has told us about how platforms work and what makes them effective.

A platform is something that you create that allows other people to build value on top of what you do. You know Web is a platform, Tim Berners did not control what people did with it but he enabled all kind of activities. You know Apple Iphone turned the mobile phone into a platform. And once again all this economic activity outside Apple, or Facebook turns into a platform. Is not that also how the government should think about what it does. It should be thinking about what it does. It should be thinking about how do I act more like a platform rather than a closed service delivery mechanism. So I used the image of a vending machine.

You know we have this idea of "Government as a vending machine"; we put the taxes in and get out services. And what people's idea about Government 2.0 is "better ways of shaking the vending machine." It is like we did not get what we want, therefore we're gonna shake it. And instead what I was thinking was "No, what we really should do is think about how to make government more effective as a platform. So you know the example I've been using was not the Internet how US Government helped founding the Internet.

A far better example is the GPS satellite system. You know, here was this expansive hard to do thing which was a great thing for the government to do. Even in government it took a long time for the government. Then they made a crucial decision, they opened it up for civilian use. If they did not open it up for civilian use, we would not have Four Square, we would not have Google Maps telling you on the map where to get to. So government did this hard underlying layer of platform functionality. And so what I'm trying to get governments think about is how do they open up data and services in such a way that the outside developers can build up the same way the Apple opened up the phone and said outside developers build on or Tim Burners opened up this Web layer. And I guess I'm having some success making people think about it and that is exciting to me.

KH: It is really interesting. I never thought about GPS being a public domain service. It is one of the biggest.

TO: Yes. It is actually being in more ways than we know about. Mobile networks use it for synchronization and mobile phones would go down without it.

KH: I guess GPS is being used more outside the government than for the government. That is very interesting.

TO: Exactly.

KH: One of the key questions that now we are more into the conversation; as I said before you are a big twitter. You attain conferences, you write something, you read something then you tweet about it. Me and few of my friends are overwhelmed by your tweets.

How come you can manage that? How do you decide that which kind of information is valuable to give time and which is not?

TO: It is kind of random.
KH: I was thinking about gut feeling or such :)

TO: Yeah I think it is. It is more gut feeling and I store some information, all those things that I think I'll tweet about later but I don't tweet about. But I use tweeter the way that I should use You know I read something and say "oh that is worth saving" if it is worth saving I think it is worth sharing. You know in some ways twitter for me is It is what I do most of time I share like "wow that was pretty good, I should share it" and sometimes I'm very deliberate, sometimes I'm trying to promote a conference, sometimes I'm trying to promote an idea, but it is easy to do and then I can go back and look at it.

KH: Yeah that is very convenient. You mind telling us what kind of tools you use to store up that information.

TO: I use text file.

KH: Yeah text file, the best way.

TO: I mean when I'm twitting I usually use my desktop I'm also using but on this trip for example I just brought my Ipad.

KH: How about Ipad. This is like computing without geeks. And people usually look into it like a very big enabling platform especially people who are not geeks. How about that?

TO: I do think Apple has a genius about consumer products in the technology space. There is no question that Ipad is an incredibly important product. I think the tablet is probably less important than the phone. What I think is kind of brilliant is that you know all the pass tablets that have failed have basicly been built based on the on a PC metaphor and it is interesting here that Apple went for the other way, they took the phone and scaled the phone to a larger form factor, and are using the phone operating system, than the PC operating system. That turned out to be a brilliant move.

KH: How about Apple's approach. I mean they do not like you changing the usage. I used to be an unfortunate Apple note book user, that I used Debian on it. But that could not survive.

TO: I think that it certainly gonna be a problem for hardcore geeks but, certainly is a choice.

KH: Like there are alternatives and such.

TO: Yeah and I think the Android is certainly coming out strong. Overall I'm not really worried about the future of hacking. People will find new ways to hack different things.

KH: People are beginning to call for a handymen to put a nail on the wall and I'm a bit more passimistic about it. One of my friends called for one to nail four nails on the wall and I was ashamed for him.

TO: Really. Wow. Are you serious?

KH: That was unbelievable and it happened in a geography not so advanced. People getting used to that comfort and giving away freedom.

TO: That is true. You know we have that Makezine to kind of celebrate getting hands on again. But actually it is kind of interesting, you brought up Slashdot. But it was actually inspired by we sell lot of hacking stories in Slashdot and Theodore had this idea about do a magazine about people who are doing this kind of work.

I think it has always been this way. At least in America in 1950's everybody was always hacking their cars. Then you got these crazy kids began hacking on computers. Maybe hacking on computers is like hacking cars back in 50-60's. Maybe people will not hack on computers anymore. They certainly won't be hacking on PC's. Hey, the computer is this thing in the sky. But they also began hacking all kind of new things, they are building sensor based devices. Hey, the phone is this interestingly versatile sensor platform.

This is one of my favorite Android apps is this Heart Rate monitor. You put your finger on the camera and it measures your pulses.

Boran Puhaloğlu: One of my students have arrhythmia and he uses that app.

KH: That is very clever. I'm working in a GSM company, we have an application that uses a special kind of camera that helps the phone count blood cells. That is also very innovative. This is even more, for that it does not need any modification.

KH: Jumping from things, we will go a bit faster...

TO: Yeah, we have like 15 mins before the conference.

KH: Ok. What do you think about the NY Times move?

TO: I think they are trying to make it legitimate to make people pay for content. It is kind of hard to go backward after you have been free. You know we have a very successful payroll business, which people are paying subscription prices for access to content. But we did not go there after first being free. I guess they will have hard time there. Also I think their pricing is too high.

KH: People also began speculating about "this is not the way to do epublishing, it is the way to force people out of it into paper."

KH: About this cloud thing. We are always talking about the cloud, we are talking about the security of it, the infrastructure that makes it.

Do you think the cloud is the first step of Singularity.

TO: These days, when people begin to talk about cloud these days they often refer to specific things like Amazon's platform or SAAS applications. But really, everything is in the cloud. When you think about applications that run on your phone, they are not actually on your phone. It again goes back to what we talk about as Web 2.0. One of key principals was "software above one device" You know you have a phone, and Google Maps, it has a cloud component and a device component. When you use Google search again you have a cloud and local components.

We did a conference back in 2001 called "Building the Internet Operating System" that was before we were calling Web 2.0. Clay Shirky gave this keynote, which he remarked on the fact that Thomas Watson for IBM once said that he could not see the need for more than five computers in the world. Clay said that "We know know that he is wrong. That he overstated the number by four, we only have one." It is definitely where we are headed.

Is this the first step to Singularity? I'm not sure I buy the idea of singularity.

First of all relative to Neanderthal we probably are singularity or to pre-agriculture man. That does not mean... singularity does not imply to some kind of the end of history.

KH: You are not a believer in endings I guess. No end to hackers, no end to single computer...

TO: Yeah.

KH: How about rising of the Internet censorship. Maybe a too broad subject but now that we are seeing governments are taking more actions, especially the less developed the country the worse actions are being taken.

TO: You know John Gilmore says "The Net interprets censorship as damage and routes around it." We see more architectural control in Internet than we realize. It is very hard to hide any more. It is always this technological determinism about how it will shape our future. The printing press was a tool of freedom, then it became a tool for repression. That is why, if we care about freedom, we have to work for it.

KH: Ok lets come to this organization (OCCRP) or your movement like Tools of Change for Publishing. What would you like to say about them?

TO: The main thing, why I started Tools of Change, is that I wanted to get across the message that the change is not bad. You know there are a lot of doom and gloom. "The same thing that happened to music industry, we are gonna go out of business, the sky is falling" etc. You know it is always possible to see an enormous opportunity in that change. So how do you take advantage of that opportunity, conference about bringing people together so come and tell us your success stories, lets embrace the change and figure out how to be good at it.

I think the same thing is true for this event OCCRP. They are trying to think about investigative journalism. They are talking about news journalists are not being funded and figuring out how we should do it in the new environment. They are figuring out computerized tools for research, for sharing stories, for tracking stories across borders. It is great collaboration of reporters and hackers. So they had this workshop yesterday, journalists saying "here is the story we are trying to work on and here are some part of data we have" and hackers trying to figure out where to get that data.

You know it is like rather than sitting and thinking "NY Times used to have this much investigative journalists" then thinking "how would we do investigative stories with little resources we have."

It is a heck of lot better to be inventing the future than lamenting the loss of the past.

You know there is this lamenting story of Alexander, that he was afraid his father would conquer all there is to conquer and he will have nothing left to him. Some people rather have an uncertain future because it gives them more opportunity to make future happen.

KH: That is a nice way to look into things.
There is another thing I'd like to ask, though you already answered partially. About piracy; you know piracy in itself is a depressing word, but we saw that very good things came from piracy, like you mentioned how music groups bloomed this way. But music groups are even trying to control the distribution of lyrics, which may end up like they won't have people chanting with them in the concerts for that they do not know the lyrics anymore, because you have to buy the lyrics.

TO: If you have any knowledge of the history, you know that this is not new.
KH: Like the cassette recorders?
TO: Even further, in 1850's there was a big uproar in Britain that America did not respect British copyrights. Today you hear all this piracy in China. Guess what, 150 years ago US was the biggest source of piracy. You know people like Dickens were filing complaints about publishers that are publishing their writings without permission in US. As America grew up we became a big market, than they wanna have market rules. You know there used to be a Wild West and then it went away. It eventually will settle down.

This goes back to my ideas about OS. I used to argue that about Open Source is like science not religion. I believe in it because it works. And if you believe it works you don't need to worry about. You may evangelize about the fact that it works.

There is this evoluation of markets. They mature. So if you look for example the world wide web was all free and then came this monetization; the advertising. A different business model than before but it is a very good business model, and it created a lot of wealth. Why is different than what was before? You have got a period that everything gets upset, then people figure out the rules and they figure out how to make money and then the hackers go make up something new, you know they disturb another industry, then they figure out the rules and it becomes a stable industry again.

KH: A special question from one of my friends, he is in Belgium now. He asks, when will we be hearing from you a book like "Journalism in a Nutshell"?

TO: Well we had this book by Dan Gillmore about the future of journalims (KH: I guess the name of the book was "We The Media") a little ahead of its time. So we did that book, but it was a bit too early and we could not keep up with it.

I'm not sure that the book is the right vehicle to that. That is one of the things that I talked about it in that Forbes interview. The big question isn't you know are books going to go away or the publishers. The ancient question is how the books are going to change. I don't think people are spending enough time thinking about that question because if you understand how they are gonna change you'll really understand where the real opportunity are. I don't have easy answers but at least I know it is the right question.

If you think about so many attempts to preserve the old business model in the new media. Almost invariably people get wrong what technology will be good for. If you have any sense of history you learn that the advancers of technology do not know what it will be used for. For example Alexandre Graham Bell, thought telephone will be used to send symphony concerts out to remote locations, so people will listen to it from long way away. He had no idea everyone will have one of these things and it will be a person to person communication device. He thought it would always be a broadcast device, for spreading news and culture. The future always surprises us. The people who do well are people who are open minded about technology. Because if you focus on the past you focus on the wrong thing.

There is an other great example. There were rivals of Bell who worked on the telephone. One of them were working on the same thing but he thought it was more important for him to improve the invention of corded telegraph keyboard. So that you can type faster and send telegrams more quickly.

Back to e-books, there is whole classes of books that will go away. Because every book is not doing the same job for the reader. For example there is these maps that you may think like a book. You can buy an atlas, a single paper map, consider that with an online map, which shows who is near and what are the near functions. Map has completely been transformed in the last ten years. Books are also being transformed in some ways. You have to ask what job it is doing you know, our books are giving references. A reference is a lot easier online and so replaces the function of quick lookup functions. The best selling online books of us are the teaching books. You know the "Head First" books.

KH: Yeah, those headfirst books, they are unbelievable, a totally new way to tutor people into learning. I hate Java but, I loved the "Head First Into Java" book.

TO: That is good. It is like the medium changes, when the content it works with also changes. And I think that is the thing about the cloud and the Ipad. People are figuring out how to develop applications. One good example is the Ibird app. There has always those bird guides, hey it is way better to have an interactive application help you narrow down, depending on where you are and it gives you the characteristics of the birds, this and this and this.

KH: The US Military is using them, they have lots of applications. They are giving away the notebooks and using Ipads instead of regular pad.

Ok. We are overdue but are there anything else you'd like to mention?

TO: Well I'd just say, developers should trust what makes them excited. You know it is very easy to chase what other people are doing. It is really remarkable how the future unfolds to people pursuing their passions and the great world changing inventions come about really through activities which people are doing because they thought it was fun, because they loved it, they weren't thinking about money. The Wright Brothers were not trying to found an airline, they just wanted to fly. The guys of the HomeBrew Computer Club just wanted to have a computer.

I had this really interesting conversation recently with Max Levchin. He was one of the founders of PayPal and then later he started a company called Slide which he just sold to Google. But he was telling me he was at University of Illinois same time as Marc Andreessen and they knew each other slightly. And he was just saying "Hey you know, I, uh, Marc wanted me to come work on Mosaic and I just thought it was boring. It was like you know I, like all these hard computer science problems with lots of data" and you know and he was just he was on a later curve, so Marc was on this curve and Max was on this curve. And you know.. Just that there is a new curve of innovation coming and sometimes you know the things that you care about that seem like they're irrelevant will turn out to be really really important not later on.

And besides it is too easy to get seduced into chasing the herd. Yes, some people will succeed that way, but a lot will fail and meanwhile it is a lot more fun just to follow what you yourself find exciting and try to make the world a more interesting place.

KH: Thank you very much.
TO: You are very welcome, thanks for coming.
Kıvılcım Hindistan (Sundance) - Alper Tuna (Parsifal) - Boran Puhaloğlu (Butch)


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