Tim O'Reilly and John Battelle discuss the upcoming Web 2.0 Summit

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Beginning on November 5th, 2008 a wide array of thought leaders and practitioners of Web 2.0 are converging on San Francisco to attend the 5th annual Web 2.0 Summit. This year’s theme, “Web Meets World” reflects how much Web 2.0 has evolved over the past five years. I recorded an informal conversation with co-chairs Tim O’Reilly and John Battelle to discuss that theme, highlighted speakers and how to get invited to the Summit. Whether you plan on attending or not, the discussion provides insight into the state of Web 2.0 today.

Transcript Follows:

Interviewer: My name is Joshua-Michele Ross with O’Reilly Media and I’m speaking today with Summit co-chairs John Battelle of Federated Media and Tim O’Reilly of O’Reilly Media.

During this conversation, we wanted to explore the state of Web 2.0 in 2008 and what to expect from the upcoming summit. Let’s start off with a question to you, John. As Web 2.0 turns five years old, how has it evolved and how is that reflected in the summit?

John: Well, I think we’ve always kept one thing at the heart of the conference. Certainly, the Web 2.0 Summit is a place where the industry meets to talk about the opportunities and the issues that are inherent to the industry. But as it has evolved, and particularly in the theme this year, what we’ve noticed is that the web industry or the internet industry, as such, has really widened out and broadened out to not be just about people who are starting hot new companies or getting funding or the big guys that we always have every year who come and have conversations with us from Amazon or Google or Yahoo or even large companies related to the internet like AT&T or Viacom. But that people inside the industry have been moving their focus and their resources and their energy to much bigger and broader issues of the world in politics or health or energy. And companies like Google and Microsoft and others are doing the same thing.

And transversely, we’ve also noticed that very interesting figures from outside of the internet industry are moving into the internet industry because they see an energy, a philosophy, a sort of set of standards and approach to the world that might help solve some very large intractable problems such as health or energy. So people like Al Gore [are] joining Kleiner Perkins and becoming the chairman of Current TV and trying to change the media world and change the world of finance and save the world basically by venture capital. Or people like Lance Armstrong who have sort of a life’s mission around health and has launched a health dot com called LiveStrong.com, so they’ll be coming.

So this theme that we have this year has evolved out of that to “Web Meets World” where last year, we said, “Where are the edges of the web? Where is the web not yet colonized the world?” And I think this year, we said, “Well, the two have pretty much melded and we want to explore how the web has met the world and the world’s meeting the web.” And we have two themes to that. One is the one I described around some of the sustainability and energy and health and political issues that we’ll be tackling. And the other one, I think I’ll let Tim, my co-chair describe when it has to do with literally the web meeting the world in terms of the opportunities of putting the two together.

Tim: So when you come to the Web 2.0 Summit, one of our goals is to have you go away saying, “Whoa, I didn’t see that. I didn’t understand how important that was.” When we did the first Web 2.0 Summit, we named an industry and we brought together a bunch of themes that were happening and we sort of crystallized them for people and we want to do that every year. We want people to understand something new that they didn’t get before they came.

And in this theme of “Web Meets World”, there really are a couple of angles. One, as John said, is how do we apply the collective intelligence of web applications to really hard, real world problems and make a better world as opposed to say, making a silly consumer application. I mean, there [are] wonderful consumer applications but there’s another aspect and that is the way that the web is literally meeting the world as we instrument the world.

So when you’re talking about solving a problem like global warming, a huge part of it is actually getting data into the models. And that means the sensor web. It means problems of big data and big data analysis. When you’re trying to figure out how to do sort of social network analysis, it doesn’t just mean looking at what people do on Facebook apps. It might be looking at what people are doing to track real world social networks as expressed by mobile phones.

You know the mobile phone [is] literally a sensor that’s reporting back on the real time social network and the participants. There’s some fascinating work done in this area -it’s got a new name, reality mining. And that term, reality mining is [the] other side of “Web Meets World”. You know we’re starting — when people have asked me, “Where is Web 2.0 going”? I say, “It’s actually going from collective intelligence applications that were driven by people typing on keyboards to collective intelligence applications that are driven by sensors.” That is the major theme, major opportunity, and one of those things that we hope people will come away from the summit really paying attention to in a different way.

A great example, we haven’t finally confirmed him yet for the Summit, but Carl Bass, the CEO of Autodesk talked to me recently about how the work process of architects and engineers is changing. They used to sit down and they would design something. He said now it’s becoming much more of a sampling metaphor. Our workflow has changed from design and build to sample, remix and build.

So here’s something [that] first took hold of music, the idea of sampling and remixing and now, five years later, that’s how they’re thinking about stuff. How do you actually make something new? You might scan an object and then modify it and then create a new object. You might scan a building so that things fit in differently. So there’s a change happening in the way the world is working that we want to bring to people’s attention. And I think that’s a big part of what’s going on here.

Interviewer: So I think that really clarifies the “Web Meets World” theme and how that’s playing out. What about the actual speakers and some highlights there about who’s going to be at the summit?

John: Oh, yeah, I could talk all day. I’m very excited. We announced about two weeks ago that the former Vice President Al Gore is going to be joining us. He’ll be anchoring the final speaking slot on Friday. And we’re excited about that, given his prominent role in the current election and the event is taking place literally the day after the election. There’s a very good chance that Gavin Newsom will be joining us as well and Gavin, the Mayor of San Francisco, will be filing his papers for his formal candidacy for Governor of California, which is of course one step from the White House. I’m certain he has intentions there.

Like with Carl, we haven’t quite closed down [Gavin’s] schedule yet, but he’s indicated to me he’d like to come. He just wants to figure out if he can make it at the right time. And we have a whole group of really interesting folks coming that maybe we wouldn’t have had before like Lance Armstrong who will be doing our dinner conversation on the first night. Like Elon Musk, who is the Founder of PayPal and is the chairman of SpaceX (http://www.spacex.com/) and one of the people behind Solar City which is attempting to mass commoditize solar at the edge basically. And also, of course [Elon is] very well known for Tesla, the [electric] car that is sort of the hot car that everybody in the Valley is lining up to try to get.

So he, I think, is going to be very interesting. I think two or three years ago, we would have been talking about PayPal. Now, we’re talking about energy. We’re talking about reinventing transportation and so that’s kind of exciting. We have the head of Google.org. Usually, we have Larry or Sergei or Eric, one of the three who run Google but this year, we wanted to have the person who runs Google’s other side, Google.org, which has the very modest goal, among many of its modest goals, of figuring out how to create a unit of energy below the cost of coal and so we’re going to ask Larry how he plans to boil that particular ocean.

Tim: Yeah, speaking of Google.org, they’ve also got a really important focus on — how do you detect infectious diseases and how do you stop their spread? That’s a really interesting problem that is in this “Web Meets World” category.

John : Very much so.

Tim: You know the fact is Larry originally made his name as part of the team that eradicated smallpox and he points out that it was done not by vaccination. It was actually detection and isolation. And in the original work, they literally had physical volunteers walking around with a picture of a kid with smallpox saying, “Have you seen anybody who looks like this”? You know, he said in India alone, which he ran, they had 20 million volunteers. That’s harnessing user contribution.

John: Right, right.

Tim: They gave out three billion copies of this photograph. And so now, Google is saying, “Well, how can we use the power of the web to sort of harness millions of volunteers to help us detect, for example, an infectious disease outbreak” or whatever else we need to know about the planet’s health. This is a great example of somebody who’s been riding this wave of user contribution and now saying, “Wow, we can turbo charge this with the power of the internet.”

John: Exactly, exactly. Along those lines, we’re looking at some global phenomena and saying, “What else is going on?” Mobility is a big part of instrumenting the web and we’ve all seen what’s happened with the iPhone in the past year. We have the person responsible for the edge network, the CEO of AT&T wireless, coming and we’ll be asking him why we have such great connectivity in the Palace Hotel.

We have some very interesting companies from India. One’s called GupShup, which is a company that is basically Twitter for mobile phones in India. It’s growing three times as quickly as Twitter is and it is three times as large already. [There are] tens of millions of users on mobile phones in India. We have the CEO of Zappos.com coming — he has very interesting approaches to how to run an ecommerce startup, and I think ecommerce, as Tim has pointed out, is in a really interesting resurgence at the moment.

Tim: Yeah, let me jump in on that. Every year we do a dinner in prep for the Summit and just pick people’s brains and one of the things that was bubbling up was how ecommerce is coming back as a business model. There’s a number of companies in China and Korea for example, [who have] totally thrown out advertising as their model and it’s all sort of sales of virtual goods, billion-dollar companies in virtual goods. Brian Sugar of Pop Sugar was saying how a third of their revenue is ecommerce revenue.

So we were starting to see this bubbling up, this theme of ecommerce of virtual and physical goods. And of course, that fits right with the “Web Meets World” theme, so how can we not have Zappos which is on track to be a billion-dollar company selling shoes?

John: I know, a monster.

Tim: Through understanding the power of [this], they’ve done it better, they understand, that customer service is marketing. And so this–

John: There’s so much good stuff it’s like terrifying actually. Another one is if you think about one of the biggest issues in the world right now that everyone’s thinking about is war. And it just so happens we have the CIO of the Army who’s coming. And we’ll be hearing from him.

Tim: Yeah, it’s kind of interesting. I was at a meeting with General Sorenson and he was talking about — I don’t know how much he’ll be able to sort of reveal — but just some of the war games exercises they’re doing outside the warfare — fascinating stuff.

Interviewer: And that, of course, is only a partial list of the people that will be speaking and attending. For anyone that wants a complete list, you can go to web2summit.com. And that brings us to another area which is Web 2.0 Summit is by invitation-only. But I’m sure there’s a lot of people who are wondering how they get on that list, how they get invited and what the policy is there.

John: Well, we always open the event to anyone who wants to apply for an invitation and people often ask us, “Well, how come I didn’t get an invitation”? And it’s never personal. But really, what we’re trying to do is get the right mix in the room. And every year, it’s very different because we open invitations first to our alumni and depending on sort of the mix of alumni who sign up first — I don’t want to pick on VCs but why not? If a bunch of VCs sign up early, then if someone who may request an invite who is in the venture capital industry may not get an invitation simply because we already have so many VCs who’ve signed up and we want to make sure that we have room for other industries and other types of folks. It is an executive conference so obviously, we look at the level of the title and we certainly like to include a mix of academics and people from around the world.

So every year’s a little different but we certainly encourage folks to go to the “request an invite” link which is on the website.

Interviewer: Great, that’s fantastic.

Tim: And let me add one thing there. We get mail all the time saying, “Hey, I’m going but my buddy didn’t get his invitation approved. Can you look into this?” And that’s okay too because [there are] a lot of people applying. We don’t notice them all. And so for example, if you got in and somebody who you think ought to be on our radar didn’t get an invitation but applied, send us an email why we should invite them.

John: Tim, that reminds me actually. I’m going to be sending an email out to the folks who have already registered inviting them to do exactly that because we kind of want to make sure that we get new people who we may have missed in our invitation process but people who are friends and colleagues who are coming they know of. And we sell out every year and certainly, we’re on track to do the same. So before we have to close registration, we’d like to give those who registered early a chance to bring in some of their friends for exactly that reason. We get a lot of those emails but we often get them two or three weeks before the event when we just don’t have room.

So I’ll be sending that email out actually in a day or two.

Tim: That kind of again goes back to [the main issue] — if you’ve applied and haven’t heard back, we are trying to keep the mix right and we’re waiting just basically keep some slots.

John: Yeah.

Tim: So I mean we could fill it all up right in the beginning and then we’d be in trouble.

John: Yes, we would.

Interviewer: Well, I want to thank you both for speaking with us today and look forward to seeing you both at the Summit. For listeners who want more information, simply go to web2summit.com and thanks a lot for listening.

Tim: Thank you.

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