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Tim O'Reilly

Tim O'Reilly

Focus of the Next ETech

etech logoI let my hair down a bit with Marty Graham of Wired News last night, talking about the future of ETech, and sharing a bit of my nostalgia about seeing some of the ideas that originally fired the conference "grow up," drawing marketers and people looking for practical business advice as well as hackers and entrepreneurs. This morning I saw that Dylan Tweney posted a slightly misleading blog post on the subject, based on my conversation with Marty. Entitled "The End of This Idea," the posting seemed to suggest that I thought that the ETech conference had run out of gas. Far from it.

What I did suggest to Marty was that Web 2.0, which was still a focus of many (but far from all) of the conference talks, should no longer be central to the conference, as it's an idea that's gone from emerging to mainstream. What's more, we now have not one but two other conferences, the Web 2.0 Expo in two weeks, and the Web 2.0 Summit in the fall, that are completely devoted to Web 2.0.

ETech began its life as the Peer to Peer and Web Services conference back in 2001, with a focus on what I called "building the internet operating system." We've been pushing the edges of that idea as a major focus of ETech ever since. It was still a major part of this year's ETech, with talks like Werner Vogels on Amazon's platform services for "web-scale computing", Sun's Virtualizing the Data Center with Project Blackbox, danah boyd's Incantations for Muggles: The Role of Ubiquitous Web 2.0 Technologies in Everyday Life, Duane Nickuls' Web 20-20: Architectural Patterns and Models for the New Internet, or my own panel on Web 2.0 and Wall Street.

But the essence of ETech is our idea that you often see the seeds of the future in places where people are having fun with technology. New markets often start with enthusiasts rather than entrepreneurs. (This was the focus of my own keynote at etech, which tried to put some of the emerging themes we are seeing now into context.) The personal computer pioneers didn't think they were creating a new industry. Neither did the first snowboarders or today's kite-surfers. Where is that edge of fun? We see a lot of it now in the pages of Make, so we're now paying a lot of attention to hardware hacking.

But we also see a lot of totally transformative stuff coming out of science. There are breakthroughs coming out of the labs that are heading for commercialization, and enthusiasts are starting to become entrepreneurs.

When we started ETech, the idea of the web as platform was one of those "new edge" type of topics. Now, it's entirely appropriate for it to be the focus of the Web 2.0 Expo, which focuses on practical, how-to education, and the rollout of new companies and products, and the Web 2.0 Summit, which focuses on the business side of this new internet economy.

So what I was suggesting to Marty is that in next year's ETech, attendees should expect more talks like Andy Kessler's Silicon is Invading Medicine or Quinn Norton's Body Hacking, or the "from the labs" sessions held by Microsoft and IBM, talks that focus on edge topics that aren't yet as mainstream as Web 2.0. That doesn't mean that we'll completely abandon Web 2.0-type topics. There's still a huge amount of innovation that has yet to happen before we fully realize the potential of pervasive computing and the internet as platform. But we are clearly looking for new frontiers.

So let us know what you're hacking on today, the stuff that seems to you to have no conceivable commercial use but is just insanely cool. What makes you really excited in futures you imagine but don't yet know how to reach? That's what we want to feature in next year's ETech!

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Comments: 15

Don MacAskill   [03.30.07 12:05 PM]


I had a great time both attending and presenting at ETech this year, but I'm glad to hear this. Knowing that I'd be attending (and co-presenting) at Web 2.0 Expo in just a few weeks, I was hoping for lots of non-Web stuff.

First, I'm a geek. So I'm super-interested in the future non-Web technologies, like quantum encryption/computing, genetic mapping/programming, artificial intelligence, future man-computer interfaces, etc.

Second, though, I think non-Web disciplines can teach us a ton about how to do thing on the Web. If we get too insular in the Web community, we miss out on insights that other arts and sciences can bring to bear that can dramatically impact our ability to deliver better, faster, and/or easier Web apps.

One of my very favorite things about foo camp is that it's a mix of thinkers from all walks of life, and that when everyone's mixed together, magic happens.

So I'm thrilled to see that ETech, moving forward, will be even less focused on Web technologies and more on the broader edge of emerging tech.

Thanks for a great event, and can't wait to play more Werewolf with you. :)

Chris Lott   [03.30.07 12:45 PM]

My suggestions for the future of etech include going in the direction you are going, plus some more thoughts I hope you'll consider... I heart etech, but evolutionis good.

The post will show up in technorati, but here's a link:

maria   [03.30.07 02:45 PM]

stuff that'd be cool in future etechs:

- how to be a house off the grid
- *consumer* health stuff (stuff we can already do and buy, without prescription)
- urban planning issues

Chris L   [03.30.07 07:23 PM]

Early this morning I made a number of suggestions for improving etech (which remains a favorite conference), including some ideas similar to Tim's as well as other suggestions:

Werner Sombart   [03.31.07 08:16 AM]

Tim, as head of a media company, surely you recognized the omnipresent risk that a reporter would twist what you said to fit into the reporter's agenda. I'd say that occurred about 50% of the time I spoke with reporters, especially when I "let my hair down." I've had my share of bad hair days and I feel your pain.

Regardless of what happened when you chatted with Marty Graham, I have to agree with him that the ETech conference has lost its punch. (Full disclosure: I decided not to attend after reading the advertised session descriptions.) ETech reminds me of the Hacks book series, which started nobly as a grab bag of creative implementations of crazy ideas (example: Wireless Hacks) and devolved into glorified user manuals (example: Ubuntu Hacks). ETech likewise started nobly, but now about 65% of the speakers are Friends of O'Reilly and many of the rest represent the usual corporate suspects (Microsoft, Adobe, Sun, Yahoo, Disney, IBM, McKinsey, and Warburg Pincus, to name a few). If I wanted to experience industry leaders rehashing research that's about to enter the product pipeline, I'd visit their websites.

So, now that ETech has gone mainstream, may I humbly (and with a hat tip to Karl Marx) suggest creative destruction? Reinvent the "alpha geek" concept and start over with a fresh conference idea and new players. If you don't do it, your competitors will.

Tim O'Reilly   [03.31.07 09:38 AM]

Werner, I didn't think that Dylan twisted my comments to Marty (who is a woman, by the way) to drive an agenda. The reason I said I "let my hair down" is that I did express to Marty a bit of disappointment in this year's program. (And I made a commitment to get personally involved again in making next year's program -- I did the program for the first etech back in 2001, but haven't been as involved as I should have been since.) The only dispute I had with the article was the way the title and the quote made it sound like the conference itself, rather than too much focus on "the internet operating system" (i.e. Web 2.0) had run out of gas.

And I'm not saying that Web 2.0 has run out of gas either. That's just an idea that's gotten bigger and more mainstream than this conference. The idea of the conference, to find what's on the hacker edge, is absolutely right on, and as powerful as ever. I just felt we didn't do as good a job of finding that edge this year as we should.

That's not to say that there wasn't some amazing content there. I believe that Matt Webb's stuff -- thinking about how design has to change as things become embued with computing -- is among the most profound insights to come around in a long time. I think that we also spent a lot of time on a really important message: that where people are having fun rather than looking to make money is actually a good place to look for innovation. And Dale Dougherty's talk tying craft to computing is really important: we launched Craft magazine for a reason. We're seeing a convergence between "hacking" and "crafting" that is going to transform how we acquire the clothes we wear and the objects we carry, and will reshape fashion.

I also think that the stuff I covered in the exec briefing -- distributed manufacturing networks, with hackers getting access to factories, not just workshops, open source hardware, crowdsourcing applied to physical products -- as well as parallels between Wall Street and the future of Web 2.0 -- are incredibly important and thought-provoking topics.

A lot of the edges we are exploring are there. I already called out the Kessler and Norton talks -- another one of those edges.

But I agreed that even though we do think that people haven't realized just how much Amazon's web services are the future of computing, and how significant a product release Adobe's Apollo is (and the whole trend of blurring the boundary between online and offline) that this probably wasn't the appropriate conference for that material, as it's front and center at Web 2.0, and we should have used this opportunity to feature some more of the non-web things we're looking at.

We had a great turnout, and as far as I can tell, all the new attendees had a great time and learned a lot (and there were many more new attendees than old timers, which told me something), but for people who'd been before, too much was old hat.

Technologies move on, from alpha geeks to the mainstream. A lot of the original ideas that we had in etech are now pretty mainstream, and I was observing that it's past time to move on to find some new edges. We'll definitely be doing that.

I just wanted to jump on that Wired posting to clarify what I meant. I'm a big believer in telling the truth. I'd rather be out front saying that we we weren't pushing far enough out this year than hearing others say it first.

Werner Sombart   [03.31.07 11:43 AM]

Tim, I'd like to amplify my suggestion to "reinvent the alpha geek" and offer my thoughts about the "hacker edge." Hacking is a fun and noble tradition that's central to the alpha geek concept. Lots of intelligent folks hack in their spare time (and maybe even at work). But the "hacker edge" is starting to seem trite. Hacking isn't what led to major inventions (such as the Internet or the Web) that shape our present or short-term future. Most such inventions came from well-established academic and industry research processes, which developed theory and reduced it to practice.

Looking backward, one example from ETech 2005 was Neil Gershenfeld's superb presentation on "Bits and Atoms." On-demand manufacturing, as you know, is a huge part of our near future. Speakers who are actually doing the science and can explain it in entertaining plain English are worth their weight in gold.

Going forward, I'd like to see more real science besides just hacking. For example, Hal Abelson at MIT is studying how to apply collective intelligence and network computing to the future of engineering education. (He spearheaded MIT's impressive Open Courseware initiative.) I wouldn't call Abelson an "alpha geek" but he's doing the kind of work that will shape our children's futures. I'd like a better understanding of what's going on in the science behind quantum computing, highly distributed computing, biological computing, and nanotechnology, just to mention a few interesting disciplines. These, in my mind, are real emerging technologies and where the focus should be.

Maybe I'm not in the sweet spot of your audience, but I'm suggesting that "reinventing the alpha geek" involves the hard work of finding the real heroes, rather than just the kids who are doing the cool tricks.

Dylan Tweney   [03.31.07 10:03 PM]

Tim, just wanted to clear up one minor point: The post you refer to on Epicenter was written by Marty, not me, and was based on her interview with you. I just posted it, without any significant editing, because Marty didn't have direct access to the blog console.

Based on my conversation with Marty, it didn't seem like she was twisting your words in the post -- it seemed you were indeed a bit disappointed with the conference, as you acknowledge here. The impression I got was that you were looking towards newer things in the future.

Tim O'Reilly   [03.31.07 10:40 PM]

Right, Dylan. The only problem I had was with the title, and the lack of referent for "this idea" which made it seem like the referent was the conference itself, not the focus on the internet as platform (web 2.0).

Tim O'Reilly   [04.01.07 10:25 AM]

Werner, I'd like to bring in more science too. That's why in addition to our pure hacker foo camp, we've also started a science foo camp to get to know more research scientists.

That being said, I think you misunderstand my definition of "hacker." Most of the great scientists I know are hackers. They are making it up as they go along, not just following someone else's rails. That makes them hackers.

And you have only to go into a great science lab to see how much makeshift there is. I loved seeing some of the STM equipment at IBM almaden where some of the pioneering work in nano scale engraving was done. These machines were totally home-made, with tin foil for shielding around key parts, etc.

To me, Hal Abelson is definitely an alpha geek.

Joe Gregorio   [04.02.07 01:08 PM]


I very much enjoyed my time at ETech, as I did last year, and I like the direction you're pointing in. More of my thoughts here:

Nilofer Merchant   [04.03.07 07:37 PM]

Tim -
I am glad to see you see the lack of focus the conference had. It reached the level of abstract and undeveloped ideas. I'm all for leading-edge thinking but I think some people (ie. the myths of innovation or Tara Hunt) lacked any deep understanding of what innovation actually takes place. A lot of people were pitching (yucko!) which meant no one previewed their content.

I left the conference wondering if you had a realistic point of view of the lack of great content.

So on to constructive comments.

There are evolutions in technology that seem worth including. For example: batteries and their innovations could substantively change our mobile experiences. Rolled screens (the idea of a folding screen that we could integrate into PDA technology) could be compelling. Green materials could be interesting. Mobile in general keeps evolving (more worldwide than here) on commerce. Maybe doing something around electronic commerce would be interesting. I would expect you to bring together 3-5 year horizon technologies that are not yet mainstream...

Chris Spurgeon   [08.10.07 10:19 AM]

[I sent this as an email right after ETech 2006, but never got around to putting it as a comment here. Better waaaay late than never...]

First off, thanks once again for a great ETech conference! As I was driving from San Diego back home to Los Angeles after the conference, I began mulling over the ETech just past and thinking about what shape next year's conference could take.

I thought about the collective influence that ETech attendees have had over the tools they've built and ideas they've had have shaped not just the web but the world at large. Who ever predicted that kind of power?

That made me think of something Stewart Brand wrote back in the early days of The Whole Earth Catalog (Brady and Rael, you may be a little young to know first-hand about the huge influence the Whole Earth Catalog has had on all of us. Tim knows.). Right in the beginning of the forward to the Catalog, Brand wrote this...

We are as gods and might as well get good at it.

Brand was talking about the Catalog's goal of connecting people with the means to learn new skills and technologies. But he was also talking about the responsibility we bear to do a good job with our tools and our skills...with our God-like powers if you will.

The more I think about this, the more I think this phrase and concept could maybe be a unifying theme for an ETech...this idea of how do we make sure we are competent and responsible in the use of our powers. Here are some examples of the types of things I mean...

*As we continue to build out the huge collection of inter-tangled APIs, more and more people and businesses depend on them. What is our responsibility to the users of those APIs when we need to change or even stop those APIs?

*As our collected stores of data continue to grow exponentially (raising our collective omniscience), our ability to make sense of that data is not keeping pace. ETech would be a perfect forum for a discussion of the data visualization and data crunching techniques that will become ever more essential. This is something that's been touched on in the last couple of ETechs, but never really presented in depth.

*The web revolution is NOTHING compared to the just-beginning revolutions in materials science and nanotechnology. I've been following this area a bit and my jaw hits the ground at least once a week when I read about the latest new breakthrough. When we have the God-like ability to make virtually any type of material we want, what will we do with it?

*If you wanted to go there, Ray Kurtzweil's "Singularity" would be a perfect topic to delve into at the conference.

A number of sessions at last year's ETech would have fallen into this theme...Jeff Hawkins talk on his Numenta platform and Quinn Norton's great talk on Body Hacking come to mind. I would welcome a whole conference fully devoted to these types of issues. It wouldn't help me build a new web site (at least not directly), but it sure would change my world view.

Anyway, that's my 2 cents. Thanks once again for all of your work for this year's conference. I'm already looking forward to ETech 2008.

Jack   [08.13.07 11:33 PM]

Interesting, I like your idea Chris,
looking forward to the next etech.

Luke   [08.20.07 11:27 PM]

stuff that'd be cool in future etechs:

- how to be a house off the grid
- *consumer* health stuff (stuff we can already do and buy, without prescription)
- urban planning issues

Agreed :)

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