Silicon Valley insiders call it the O'Reilly Radar: Tim O'Reilly's uncanny ability to spot a technology revolution before it happens. But lately the entrepreneur...

Share story

SAN FRANCISCO — Silicon Valley insiders call it the O’Reilly Radar: Tim O’Reilly’s uncanny ability to spot a technology revolution before it happens. But lately the entrepreneur, investor and book publisher has been busier trying to incite the next one.

He is urging young entrepreneurs and engineers to stop making some of the sillier software that lets Facebook users throw virtual sheep at their friends or download virtual beer on iPhones, and to start making a real difference in the world.

It’s not just the right thing to do, O’Reilly says, but also the smart thing to do — especially as the credit crunch spreads to Silicon Valley, venture financing becomes scarce and startups retrench.

When this grizzled, 54-year-old industry veteran talks, Silicon Valley listens, if only to argue with him.

Prescient on Internet

This is the guy who understood the power and significance of the Internet before most people were aware it existed. In 1992, O’Reilly published “The Whole Internet User’s Guide & Catalog,” the first popular book about the medium, which was later selected by The New York Public Library as one of the most significant books of the 20th century.

He now runs O’Reilly Media, an influential book-publishing house in Sebastopol, Calif., which has snagged a significant share of the computer-book market with series such as “The Missing Manual” and “Hacks.”

Early this decade, O’Reilly helped coin the term “Web 2.0” to refer to the current phase of the Internet, which relies on collective intelligence and action from the bottom up (think social networks such as Facebook and photo-sharing sites such as Flickr).

He is perhaps best known for organizing packed conferences headlined by some of the tech industry’s brightest people. Now he is using those conferences as a bully pulpit.

The theme of his Web 2.0 conference in November is “Web Meets World.” It will showcase activists such as former Vice President Al Gore, cyclist-turned-philanthropist Lance Armstrong and Larry Brilliant, who, as head of, has reinvented philanthropy with a non-tax-exempt foundation to invest in for-profit and nonprofit efforts.

O’Reilly argues that Silicon Valley has strayed from the passion and idealism that fuels innovation, following instead what he calls the “mad pursuit of the buck with stupider and stupider ideas.”

“Reality bubble”

Flush with money and opportunity following the post-dot-com resurgence, he says, some entrepreneurs cocoon in a “reality bubble,” insulated from poverty, disease, global warming and other problems gripping planet Earth.

He argues they should follow the model of some of the world’s most successful technology companies, including Google and Microsoft, which sprang from their founders’ efforts to “work on stuff that matters.”

Some say business isn’t the right vehicle to tackle social or environmental ills. But Jim Schorr, who lectures on social entrepreneurship at Haas School of Business at the University of California, Berkeley, says he can’t imagine “a higher calling for the next generation of tech entrepreneurs.”

“The opportunity to focus technology and tech entrepreneurs on the unaddressed, underserved segments of society is enormous,” Schorr said. “Developing and extending technologies with limited profit potential, using market-driven approaches, can deliver both social and financial impact and sustainability.”

Though the Web 2.0 generation has a reputation for indulgence and narcissism, O’Reilly says there are a number of ventures using Silicon Valley ingenuity to deliver on Schorr’s ideal.

So how has O’Reilly’s message gone over with the Web 2.0 crowd?

“I’ve had a whole bunch of people tell me they were superinspired,” O’Reilly said. “I’ve had a few people act like I am raining on their parade.”

O’Reilly says he respects those contributions — and makes a nice living showcasing them in his books and conferences. But, he says, “We have a tech generation that thinks that’s all there is.”

“The real Web 2.0, the web of collective-intelligence applications, is going to be stronger as a result of any downturn,” he said.