Bill and Tim’s Excellent (2.0) Adventure

Via Dion Hinchcliffe.

I almost let this one slip under the radar, but I’m glad I didn’t. Late last night, I finished reading the transcript of a very candid and open discussion between Bill Gates and Tim O’Reilly at MIX06 on the topic of Web 2.0. Warning: It’s rather long, but it covers a tremendous amount of territory and is so worth the read. I thought I’d gather some snippets here (I love this picture, by the way–it looks like Bill is about to bite Tim’s kneecaps off).

While reading this, it dawned on me that if Gates would just stop marketing his company for a minute and have a conversation, he’d have some very interesting, very good things to say. That is almost what happened during his chat with O’Reilly.

O’Reilly on the subject of rolling out new technologies and features:

Low barriers to entry and then things take off, and then you figure out how to make it easier for the rest of the people later.

I believe that is a viable model for libraries as well. Take RSS, for instance. There is certainly a technical hurdle to be overcome if an individual wants to take advantage of it, but if that person is unable to do so, there is no access penalty that prevents them from taking advantage of the library in the same way they always have. On the other hand, being able to take advantage of RSS feeds, say, from the new items list, or directly from the catalog, introduces an unprecedented level of convenience that has, until now, not been realized. So rapid development, rapid deployment in the library enterprise will only ameliorate our service level. That’s why it’s so important to structure our organizations in such a way that these rapid “to-market” features are implemented. This, of course, plays into the “perpetual beta/extreme programming” philosophy which can be unsettling when presented to an uninitiated. At AADL, I think we’ve shown time and again that it works. I think the positive response to frequent updates and enhancements far outweighs any negative feedback we might get from it.

O’Reilly brought up the topic of social networks:

So moving on to another aspect of Web 2.0, one point that I have made repeatedly is that one of the key concepts that’s different about network applications is that they get better the more people use them. Every time somebody makes the link on a Web site, and I think it was Scoble who made this point originally, at least in my awareness, they are contributing to a site like Google or any search engine, because it’s the users making links that is the raw material of the whole search Web. And in a similar way, every time somebody tags a photo in Flickr or a Web site in del.icio.us, they’re basically making the application better for everyone else.

To which, Gates added:

Well, the idea that the more users you get, the more valuable something is, I think that concept is even stronger today when it’s so easy for people to connect up and build communities.

Right!, that community thing… We serve communities, right? You’ll notice, however, that Gates and O’Reilly treat APIs as a foregone conclusion and consider the API as something to be accessed by anyone at any time. Naturally, integrating social networks into our systems require them. Unfortunately for us, APIs are not a priority to our vendors, nor are they often a priority to the individuals in our organizations who draft RFPs and, ultimately, make the purchasing decisions. I’m not going off on that jag today.

At any rate, it’s still possible for many of us, with a little ingenuity, to slip in some web 2.0 functionality. Like I’ve said before, libraries are the perfect incubators for social networking. The sooner we start growing that content, the sooner we start fostering an online community with its own unique personality. These will be networks that, twenty years from now, we’ll be garnering prestige from.

I thought that O’Reilly’s thoughts on application boundaries was noteworthy:

I also think one of the things that’s really interesting about iTunes is it’s an example of a paradigm I refer to, using actually language from a guy who used to work for you, Dave Stutz, called software above the level of a single device. I mean, here is an application that’s designed from the get-go to span a handheld, a PC, and a Web site as a single integrated application. It’s not just things glommed together after the fact. I mean, it was a first generation of full handheld to cloud consumer application it seems to me, other than communication app.

(Once again, visit my API angst) His comments here play into some of the thoughts I’ve been having on the virtual boundary of our libraries. For example, if we were to develop a little application that sits in the toolbar and notifies the user when his/her holds are available or when material is due, then we’ve created a tendril of influence that makes the library almost omnipresent in the daily life of that user. Perhaps that little application could notify the user of events happening at the library too, encouraging him/her to actually come in and participate. It’s an area effectively untouched by the library world and it shouldn’t be.

Oh yes, books were on the docket as well (O’Reilly):

I’m a publisher, and so I care a lot about how people are going to read in the future. You’ve promoted a lot the idea of Tablet PCs and reading devices. I’ve thought much more, because I have the Safari service, that the future was much more in building databases of content, and we’ve talked about this recently at summit called Reading 2.0, and there was a great post afterwards where somebody said, what will the books say to each other in the library of the future, the idea of books that are effectively growing, you know, all these things that we’re talking about for Web 2.0 it seems to me also relate to content.

Gates adds:

Clearly for [teachers] to have [flexibility] they’ve got to have the right tools, the rights issues can’t stand in the way. But I think, say, ten years from now we’ll look back and say, wow, textbooks, why did we put the money into that, now we’ve got this universal tool that every kid just uses instead.

O’Reilly was referring to an adjunct of his Safari service that allows users to combine material from different books to create their own custom volumes–all online, of course. My opinion is that, no matter how techie I may be, I like my O’Reilly books printed on paper, sitting on my shelf, where I can dog-ear them, photocopy them, write in them, and leave them laying open on my desk. I don’t think my feelings are very far off from many others and I don’t see school textbooks being replaced by tablets, especially not in ten years. This is one of those cases where I wish Gates would take a gander at the real world. Tim O’Reilly, on the other hand, has a vested interest in continuing to print in addition to his online offerings. I like his idea of book mash-ups. I think they’ll work in some cases, but our stack are going nowhere–it’s our relationship to our stacks and how we find the stuff on them that will dramatically change over the next ten years.

Gates on RSS:

When you think about RSS as the start of a programmable Web, as you expose APIs to your Web sites, amazing things can happen. eBay, of course, is an extreme example where over half the product listings now are done in a programmatic way. And the tools that are turning the Internet essentially into a programming environment where any Web site is almost like a component in a software application, where you make a request to it like you would a subroutine call, it comes back asynchronously with the information, that’s allowing people to think through architectures in a very different way.

RSS, to be sure, is a transformative technology. I’m glad that libraries are slowly adopting it (too slowly, but something is better than nothing). [update] See comments for clarification. [/update] It’s important to remember, however, that RSS is only the most rudimentary API available. Web-based standards exists that will give us the tools to create the type of immersive experiences Gates talks about:

Beyond browsing speaks to having rich client code that creates a great interaction. We’re seeing an explosion of this. Almost every popular Web site is now saying, OK, what can they do, whether it’s a little notification thing on the sidebar, or a full screen immersive type experience, this is a very state of the art thing that really is complementary to having that pure browser experience.

And that’s the end-game when it comes to the online experience for our users. It doesn’t matter who says it, we’ve got to acknowledge that our systems are in their infancy. We’ve got a lot of work to do–lobbying our vendors, communicating and convincing our colleagues, creating environments that foster creativity and development, not to mention producing the product itself.

Good luck!


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