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Founder of Sebastopol's O'Reilly Media called a technological visionary


Tim O'Reilly rushed through a throng of what he calls the "alpha geeks," 900 of the tech world's elite gathered for his summit on emerging technology.

He stopped suddenly for a brief chat with a disheveled MIT professor whose work is revolutionizing the world of neuroscience.

Then he was off again, bursting out with a new thought from eBay's billionaire founder, one of dozens of Internet pioneers he taps for insight on high-tech's future.

This is the life of O'Reilly: Founder of Sebastopol-based O'Reilly Media and a visionary who connects people and ideas in order to turn technological possibilities into realities.

His ability to spot revolutions in science before they happen is legendary in the tech world, and is often referred to as the "O'Reilly Radar."

He knew the founders of Google and Amazon before those companies became household names, and he's got their cell phone numbers on his iPhone to prove it.

He also knows the next generation of tech innovators, people who could become as widely known as Bill Gates or Steve Jobs in 10 years.

"Tim is sort of central to this whole tech universe," said Peter Biddle, whose company Trampoline Systems developed software that visualizes how people are connected. "He is a huge node in the network."

O'Reilly, 53, made his fortune and built up O'Reilly Media by using his foresight to publish computer books that became must-read texts for developers.

He published "The Whole Internet User's Guide and Catalog" less than two years after the World Wide Web was launched in December 1990 -- long before the Web's impact was clear.

It sold more than a million copies as people clamored to understand the Web. The New York Public Library named the catalog one of the most significant books of the 20th century.

His company created the world's first commercial Web site, Global Network Navigator, in 1993. The site was a forerunner of Internet directories such as Yahoo, with clickable ads and links to other Web sites. Two years later, O'Reilly sold the site for $11 million to America Online.

Connecting people

Today O'Reilly Media employs about 120 people at its three-story complex, built seven years ago in a former apple orchard on the north side of town.

O'Reilly hardly looks like the chief executive of a company with annual revenues in excess of $70 million.

Rather, he is the man with the graying beard, jeans and a corduroy sports coat over a T-shirt who roamed the hallways of Marriott Hotel in San Diego, where his trademark technology conference was held earlier this month.

"A lot of what I try to do is connect the right people," O'Reilly says.

His life has been a journey from a curious, 9-year-old boy growing up in San Francisco, buried in the futuristic stories of science fiction books, to the study of classics at Harvard University and a decision in 1989 to move his company from Massachusetts to Sebastopol.

O'Reilly's style of leadership is more akin to the holistic lifestyle of west Sonoma County than Wall Street's bottom-line mentality.

"Profit is not the most important company goal. Profitability is desirable like good health is desirable in your personal life: without it, nothing else goes well," O'Reilly wrote in an employee handbook in the late 1980s. "If I were to boil my company vision down to one sentence it would be this: To make money doing interesting and worthwhile things."

For O'Reilly, his passion is identifying cutting-edge technology that might appear to be science fiction or magic today, and devotedly pushing it into everyday existence for tomorrow. While his childhood heroes wrote about science fiction, O'Reilly's body of work is helping meld far-out ideas into gadgets, Web sites and medicines that could pervade our everyday lives.

"I'm trying to make things more interesting," he says.

Quinn Norton, a San Francisco-based tech journalist and frequent speaker at O'Reilly conferences, put it this way: "If Tim really wanted a jet car, he'd throw a conference, invite some jet car enthusiasts and talk about how great it would be to have a jet car and then sit back and wait for someone to build him a jet car."

No shortage of ideas

O'Reilly has an incredible memory, and accentuates his ideas by quoting long-dead philosophers or modern economists, and he's been known to end his keynote speeches with lengthy poems.

When asked to describe himself, O'Reilly quoted the modern designer Edwin Schlossberg.

"The skill of writing is to create a context in which other people can think," O'Reilly quoted. "That is a lot of what I've tried to do throughout my career, create an environment where other people can think."

O'Reilly can be a fast talker, spewing forth ideas and barely able to hold back his excitement for some future development. He often interrupts himself as ideas crammed in his head elbow to be the first out of his mouth. And walking through the conference, he'll grab people on opposite sides of the room to sit them down together, explaining they've got a lot in common, and that these former strangers should work together to build something exceptional.

O'Reilly is not a natural extrovert. He has worked hard to develop his social prowess. He was born a shy boy to a strict Catholic father who emigrated from Ireland when O'Reilly was 3 months old.

"I remember the first time I spoke in public, at a high school assembly. I nearly passed out. I literally had my vision closing down, kind of like the little circles that end the old Warner Brothers' cartoons," he recalls. "I consciously forced the circles back open and stayed on my feet. Even today, after a few days at conferences, I just need some time off by myself."

At the Emerging Technology conference, O'Reilly escaped for a few hours in the middle of the day to walk around San Diego with his wife, Christina.

The couple lives on a six-acre spread outside Sebastopol, complete with a large tree fort. Christina O'Reilly, a poet and theater backer, is clearly in harmony with the vibe of west Sonoma County.

They have two daughters in their 20s, Arwen and Meara. Both graduated from Marin Academy in San Rafael.

Web 2.0

O'Reilly's decision to move to Sebastopol brought his life full circle from childhood memories of his parent's summer home in Sebastopol in the 1960s.

He is an avid fan of opera, but has common pleasures such as his love for Jell-O.

A key to his success has been his ability to brand and create language that describes complex ideas in simple terms in order to convey meaning to broad audiences. He latched onto the phrase "Web 2.0" after his longtime partner and O'Reilly Media associate Dale Dougherty coined it.

Using his platform as a world-renowned evangelist of technology, O'Reilly branded everything from Facebook and other user-generated content to Google Docs and cloud computing under the umbrella of Web 2.0. The term stuck, and is widely used in the media to describe the resurgence of Internet companies.

Mining passions

He surrounds himself with the most talented people he can find. Two of the Internet's first three Web portals -- the precursor to sites such as Yahoo -- were created by people who currently work at the O'Reilly offices in Sebastopol.

At the conference in San Diego, O'Reilly bounced between small groups of unknown geeks, mining their passions and projects and providing feedback and tips on how to get startup funding.

He talked with with developers from Google, Microsoft and other stalwarts of the Internet age, sharing his ideas and visions of the future. He met with one of Silicon Valley's biggest consumer tech companies, which wanted his opinion on one of its new gadgets.

Then after four long days of passionately sharing ideas of the future, O'Reilly boarded a plane with his wife and headed home to Sebastopol, where he could be alone with his thoughts and family -- if only for a few days.

You can reach Staff Writer Nathan Halverson at 521-5494 or nathan.halverson@pressdemocrat.com.

TIM

O'REILLY

Age: 53

Title: Founder and CEO of O'Reilly Media

Background: Grew up in San Francisco; turned a small computer-book publishing company into a global brand

Education: Harvard University, B.A. in classics

Family: Wife, Christina, and daughters, Arwen and Meara