In Focus: O'Reilly Media, Inc.

Article ImageThe first image that is likely to come to mind at the mention of O’Reilly Media is a wild animal. O’Reilly—a publisher of books and websites and producer of conferences on computer technology topics—has earned renown for its series of “animal books,” comprehensive programming and technology guidebooks whose covers feature stately black-and-white woodcut designs of jungle, forest, and desert creatures. The first such edition, a seminal work of programming literature released in 1991 and officially titled Programming Perl, came to be called “the camel book” in reference to the dromedary that inexplicably graced its cover. The success of “the camel book” led the company to sustain and expand its zoologically inspired jackets, and the theme persists to this day.

“Our company goal is to change the world by spreading the knowledge of innovators,” says founder and CEO Tim O’Reilly. O’Reilly began as a private consulting firm doing technical writing out of offices in Cambridge, Mass. In 1984, the company started retaining rights to manuals created for Unix vendors. O’Reilly books were grounded in hands-on experience with technology and tended to be written in a straightforward, conversational voice. The company’s publishing program has expanded over the years to include everything from digital photography to desktop applications to software engineering.

O’Reilly prides itself on being an advocate, meme-maker, and evangelist. The company’s resume in this regard is impressive; time and again, O’Reilly has proven to be one step ahead of the latest technological innovation. In 1992, the company published The Whole Internet User’s Guide and Catalog, one of the first popular user’s guides to the history and use of the internet. In 1993, O’Reilly launched its Global Network Navigator (GNN) site, which was the first web portal and the first commercial site on the web. The term “open source” was coined at an O’Reilly conference in 1998, and the concept of “Web 2.0” was introduced at a 2004 O’Reilly conference.

O’Reilly says that while the book-publishing end of the company’s business has remained relatively flat, its online offerings—which are where the company is currently directing most of its innovative energy—are experiencing significant growth and generating no small amount of buzz. O’Reilly’s portal for developers, the O’Reilly Network, focuses on open and emerging technologies, covering important new technologies in typical O’Reilly fashion—independent and in-depth. The O’Reilly Radar blog, written by a team of O’Reilly technologists, presents intelligence about emerging technology and highlights the original research conducted by the O’Reilly Research group. O’Reilly’s CodeZoo offers a repository of open source components, plus a rich mix of related information from O’Reilly and the developer community.

Safari Books Online is perhaps the jewel in the crown of O’Reilly’s online offerings. Safari is an electronic subscription-based reference library for programmers and IT pros, enabling search across more than 4,000 leading reference titles from publishers including Addison Wesley, Prentice Hall, Microsoft Press, and O’Reilly itself. The company founder describes the mission of the Safari product: “When we set out to get our books online,” he says, “we exploded the notion of ‘book,’ and built a web service that truly harnessed the power of the web to bring users exactly the information they need.” Features of the service include online training videos, chapter downloads, cut-and-paste functionality, and “laser-accurate search.” Safari has been the company’s biggest story of late, and its success “vindicates our strategy of offering a full library subscription product rather than focusing on standalone ebooks,” O’Reilly says.

While O’Reilly Media is firmly established as a major technology publisher, the company has never been one to rest on its laurels. Tim O’Reilly describes one of the company’s biggest challenges as living up to “the imperative to add enough value to online content in order to actually make money.” He continues, “We all have to balance the reach that search engines and other Web 2.0 viral distribution plays bring us without giving everything away. There’s not enough attention to go around for everyone to make it up in volume. So we have to figure out the right way to make our content valuable enough to pay for. We think we have some great ways to do this, but we are continuing to refine our strategies.”


Fun Fact: O’Reilly’s distinctive animal designs were the inspiration of a designer who thought that Unix program names sounded like “weird animals.”