Why ETech is O'Reilly's Most Important Conference

I begin almost every talk I give with a brief version of my 2002 presentation Watching the Alpha Geeks. Time and again, enthusiasts rather than corporate strategists have showed us the path to the “next big thing.” I show pictures of Jobs and Wozniak along with the prototype Apple I, its chassis carved in a wood shop. I show early snowboards, skis glued together by someone who just wondered what it would be like to surf a ski slope. I show Rob Flickenger with his homebrew wi-fi antenna made out of a Pringles can. [See oreillynet.com article 2001, Business Week article two years later] I show people a few of the wild innovations that show up in the pages of Make: magazine. And I remind people of William Gibson’s insight that “The future is here. It’s just not evenly distributed yet.”

I’ve used this quote so often that people who’ve been to my talks before are groaning when it comes! But it bears repeating, because again and again, the business world seems to be surprised when hackers and enthusiasts up-end the futures so confidently predicted by their market research firms and stock market pundits.

That’s why, despite the success of conferences like the O’Reilly Open Source Convention, the Web 2.0 Summit and the Web 2.0 Expo, I still consider the O’Reilly Emerging Technology Conference (also known as ETech) to be our flagship event. It’s where we focus on the disruptive innovations that we’re seeing on the horizon, rather than the ones that have already arrived.

It was at ETech that we began talking about the internet as platform, long before we coined the Web 2.0 meme. It started with the O’Reilly Peer to Peer Conference, which I launched because I wanted to change the way people thought about P2P, persuading them that it wasn’t about file sharing and copyright, but rather about the future of the internet as a platform. People were confused at first. Why did we have talks about web services and distributed (cloud) computation at a P2P conference? But they soon caught on. The internet as platform was indeed the next big thing.

In 2003 2002, we officially renamed the P2P Conference, and ETech as such was born. We wanted to have a conference that would focus on whatever was coming next, not just the internet as platform. And of course, in 2004 we launched the Web 2.0 Summit, and that became our main vehicle for web-related innovation. We continued to have a lot of next-gen internet content at ETech, with sites such as Flickr launching there, but we started bringing in more and more other technologies.

ETech 2003 focused on ideas like swarm intelligence, social software, and collective intelligence. Today, those ideas are on the tongues of investors and business pundits.

In 2004, Bunnie Huang talked about reverse-engineering and open source hardware. Today, open source hardware is everywhere. This is a topic that’s just starting to hit the mainstream, but we believe that when it does, it’s going to hit hard. (We just did a Release 2.0 issue on the subject, and of course, it’s a frequent topic in the pages of Make.)

In 2005, Danny Hillis showed off his multi-touch map table. In 2006, Jeff Han wowed everyone with his heads-up multi-touch displays reminiscent of Tom Cruise in Minority Report. Science fiction? By 2007, Apple had built built multi-touch into a revolutionary next-generation consumer product, raising the bar for the entire mobile phone industry. And I suspect, for the PC industry as well. (I make this statement even despite the recent news that iPhone sales may be slowing. The genie is out of the bottle.)

Why am I telling you this? Because ETech 2008 is just around the corner, March 3 to 6 in San Diego, and early registration ends January 31. The program Brady and the conference committee have put together is just mindblowing. Because we’ve got Web 2.0 so well covered elsewhere, we’ve radically cut down on the amount of Web-related content. (I think we still had too much of that last year. While there’s still a lot of web innovation to come, Web 2.0 is now the mainstream playground of entrepreneurs and venture capitalists rather than the blue sky innovation of hackers modding, breaking, and building for the fun of it. ETech at its best focuses on what’s going to be making a difference not this year, or maybe even next year, but around the corner.)

Here are some of the talks I’m most excited about:

  • Saul Griffiths’ keynote on Energy Literacy. There’s a lot of hand-wringing about global warming, but finding a solution begins with a solid understanding of the energy ecosystem of the planet. How much energy is coming in? How much do we use? Where does it come from? How big are the alternative sources that we can tap? I’ve seen a version of this presentation before, and it will blow your mind. The challenges we face in kicking the oil and coal habit are huge, and so are the opportunities in reinventing carbon-intensive energy industries. Alex Steffen of WorldChanging takes on the problem from the other end, in Building a Bright Green Future. It’s amazing to see how much creativity and intelligence is being applied to what may just turn out to be the greatest challenge of our age, the make-or-break moment when we decide whether we’ll progress as a species, or fail our graduation exam. I’m counting on you guys to be part of the solution, and I hope these talks give you a really good grounding on what needs to be done.
  • Larry Lessig’s keynote on Coding Against Corruption. As you know, Larry began his career as the visionary lawyer of the Internet age with the pronouncement that “Code is Law.” He’s now telling us that we need to change the law, and that Code is part of how we’re going to do it. Larry has all the punch of an evangelical preacher, the vision of a creative technologist, and the insight of a philosopher. Every time I hear him, I want to stand up and cheer. With the enormous challenges and changes facing our civilization, we deserve a government that is transparent, and seeks the best answer to hard problems, not one that is dominated by special interests.

  • Dan Saffer’s Designing Gestural Interfaces and Trevor Baca’s When Applications Work Better with Voice…And When They Don’t. We’re entering the era of ambient computing, not to mention sensor-based computer gaming in public spaces. Part of breaking the PC paradigm will be a whole new generation of user interfaces. Those who figure out what works when people are no longer controlling their computers from a keyboard and mouse will win over those who hold to the old way of doing things.
  • Quinn Norton’s talk on Body Hacking. Quinn and others started talking about this at Foo Camp a couple of years ago, and she gave a killer talk on it last year, but this trend really is accelerating. People are figuring out how to hack their bodies, electronically, medically, and with their minds. Oh, and they are hacking those minds too.

  • Chris Anderson’s DIY Drones: An Open Source Hardware and Software Approach to Making “Minimum UAVs . Tiny unmanned surveillance vehicles have been the stuff of science fiction (and increasingly, military action) for years. But hackers are telling us that robots are coming soon to the sky near you. And the business implications are already obvious. “The point: low-cost access to the sky for anyone. By flying pre-set patterns and automatically taking hundreds or thousands GPS-tagged pictures, UAVs can populate Google Maps and other GIS services with ultra high resolution (3 cm or better), timely aerial photography. With different sensors, they can also do anything from measuring IR flux over forests to doing low-altitude pollution sampling.”
  • Ethan Zuckerman’s talk on Digital Activism as well as the talks on technology innovation in India, Africa and — surprise — Cuba. In so many ways, the future of the world is being shaped in developing countries. Will they simply emulate the West, or leapfrog us in surprising ways? Ever since meeting CK Prahalad, the author of The Fortune at the Bottom of the Pyramid, I’ve been convinced that it will be the latter.

  • Peter Norvig’s talk on finding meaning in really large data sets and Bo Cowgill’s talk on Prediction Markets at Google. The principles of collective intelligence have application well beyond the Web. Mobile applications, personal genomics, robotics — you name it — will depend on many of the same algorithms that Google has put to such good use. Follow this thread through Nathan Eagle’s Reality Mining: Inference in Complex Social Systems via the Mobile Phone (perhaps the talk most likely to prefigure big commercial breakthroughs in the next few years, as phone companies and application providers wake up to the social data that’s implicit in the phone), and Gary Bradski’s Using Computer Vision and Machine Learning with the Open Source Computer Vision Library, and you’ll be surprised at the big picture that emerges…

  • Pauline Ng’s talk on Personal Genomics: Benefits and Risks. I’m eagerly awaiting my results from 23andme (and will be blogging more about that when I get them back.)

I could go on and on. There’s more good stuff here, more new directions, than we’ve had at ETech in years, which is only to be expected, as the market starts to digest the innovations of Web 2.0 and we are now featuring the next wave of hacker-led surprises.

Early registration ends Monday, January 28th. Use the following code: et08rdr for a 35% discount.