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Rael Dornfest speaks quickly but calmly when he discusses trends. The words pour out with a hint of a foreign accent; he’s glad to release what his high-bandwidth brain has already absorbed and processed. Dornfest codes software, edits books, and organizes conferences for O’Reilly & Associates, the publisher of popular instructional manuals for programmers. The job gives him a close up perspective on computing’s grass roots movements.

Dornfest was program chair for the O’Reilly Emerging Technology Conference, or E-Tech, held this week in San Diego. Dornfest relied on a “kitchen cabinet of alpha geeks” to fill out three days of speakers and workshops that proceeded under the theme: “See the Future. Shape the Future.” Before the conference started, Dornfest told freelance writer Brad Stenger that he sees a future filled with social software, wireless devices, hardware hacks, and new interfaces, services, and business models.

TR: When you’re sizing up trends for O’Reilly, who do you pay attention to-and how do you keep track of them?

DORNFEST: A few years ago, the New York Times ran an article about a games company that wanted to find out the coolest kids to test out their stuff. So the company went around asking all these kids, “who’s the coolest kid you know?” And they’d tell them, “it’s Johnny over there.” Eventually the company came to the person who most kids pointed to, who would readily admit to the role-and that would be their tester. Finding these alpha pups, these alpha geeks, is a lot of what we do at O’Reilly.

TR: Can you connect that to what went on in putting together the Emerging Technologies Conference?

DORNFEST: We know who these smart people are and what they’re doing. We say these are the voices that we heard. We try to grow it every year. We’re bringing some stuff along from last year. We take a look at what’s new. We see what’s grown and what hasn’t grown, and what’s changed.

TR: How has the conference audience changed over the years?

DORNFEST: When it started five years ago, there were a lot of peer-to-peer hackers. The focus was Web services and there were a lot people talking about things like pipelining, coordination, and orchestration. That talk disappeared very quickly. The maelstrom kind of melted and became this grassroots thing that is happening now.

TR: What’s an example of that grassroots phenomenon?

DORNFEST: Web services are showing up all over the place. John Udell did a cool hack, called LibraryLookup. Here’s how it works. You go to any page and look for a book-and then click on a bookmark that takes you to your public library then look it up for you. Udell went to the library and saw that it was a place where people were sharing files freely. It wasn’t illegal and they were all copyrighted works. You could borrow them. When you were finished you could take them back. And it’s called the library. Stunning.

Little projects like that are what I call syndicated e-commerce-putting out pieces that you couldn’t do on your own, or that you wouldn’t want to do on your own. Put your project into the hands of people who otherwise wouldn’t help out. There’s not much programming. You can use Google for search and for ads. You can use Amazon for product shipment and sales and verification and availability, eBay for auctions, and for contact management. In the past, you’d have to make all those tools on your own.
TR: Are there other cases of technologies that had been promoted before that are now becoming really useful?

DORNFEST: I think that RSS fits that description. RSS-which stands for RDF site summary, or really simple syndication, or rich site summary, depending on who you ask-is an XML metadata format designed to automate sharing of Web content between sites. I was author, along with a couple other folks, of the RSS specification.

TR: What makes RSS so important?

DORNFEST: It’s one of the most widely deployed Web services around. It’s easily decentralized. Blogging, because of RSS, has gone from a popularity contest-how many times has my site been pinged?-to discovery of information. The browse metaphor for search has gone by the wayside. I think that RSS and syndication and blogs broadened it out. There was a lot of hype about this a couple of years ago but it’s only in the last year that things really started bubbling. I use weblogs to find information more than I use Google. I follow trails. Google will find you obvious answers. Google will find you what you’re looking for. Blogs, with RSS, will find you what you never expected to find.

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