'Crunch time for the web', says tech guru O'Reilly
Apple wants to rule the world, Google is in danger of losing its way, Microsoft is the underdog and Facebook is the most strategically open platform on the internet.
This week, at the Web 2.0 conference, Mr O'Reilly talked about the future of the internet operating system and warned that it is "crunch time".
In an interview with the BBC, Mr O'Reilly took time to expound on some of his views. Here are some extracts from his conversation with me as he made a call-to-arms for developers to stand up and be counted in ensuring the internet operating system remains open by choosing to develop for a number of platforms and using tools that "don't lock you into just one player's platform".
"We're at a point where we are making choices. Back in the mid-1980s, there was this robust developer ecosystem around the PC and Microsoft offered a kind of Faustian bargain: 'Hey, let us take care of a lot of the hard stuff and it will be great.'
"But over time Microsoft put themselves in a stronger and stronger position and then they started to consume the ecosystem they had built. Early on, Microsoft was creating more value than they captured and then they started capturing more value than they created.
"I think we are seeing that right now with Google, where they built the company by sending traffic to sites and creating mechanisms for sites to get paid, and now more and more of their links point back to Google. And they are competing with developers and I think that is a real problem and their biggest weakness right now.
"The reason it's crunch time is that we are going to be choosing what platform we use, whether it is Amazon or Apple or Google or whatever, and it seems to me that some of these guys are trying to build the same kind of 'one ring to rule them all' platform that Microsoft did. That is a reference to Tolkien; it means 'We will own this thing' - and that story doesn't end well."
At Web 2.0, there was much talk of the war of words between Apple and Adobe over the issue of Flash - which is not in the iPhone, iPod or iPad.
Last week, Apple co-founder Steve Jobs wrote a rare open letter explaining why he won't use Flash in his products and describing what he sees as the problems with the technology.
At Web 2.0, Adobe's CTO Kevin Lynch hit back and said "the more important question for us right now is about freedom of choice on the web".
Mr O'Reilly couldn't agree more, but warned that Apple clearly has its eyes set on world domination.
"You have to admire Apple. You have to admire Steve. He is probably the pre-eminent genius of the computer age. Nobody else. Not even Bill Gates has had the kind of impact he has had, again and again and again. You know: reinventing himself and reinventing the vision of the future. He pushes the envelope. I want that Steve, right?
"But he also seems to be really trying to control it all - and that Steve I don't like. I would love to see Apple do what they do but lose, because Apple as a competitor who makes everybody else better is just such a gift to the industry.
"If Apple succeeds and wins over everything else, we will have a much much less interesting industry. But I don't think they will succeed."
I put this to Mr O'Reilly: "But you said in the keynote that you reckon they have their eyes set on world domination."
"Absolutely. Absolutely. I think it is absolutely clear that Apple would like to own the entire ecosystem, soup to nuts."
As to the world's biggest search company, Google, Mr O'Reilly had nothing but admiration for the founders, but warned that the company is in danger of losing its soul.
"I totally trust the intentions of Google. Larry [Page] and Sergey [Brin] and Eric [Schmidt] are fundamentally idealistic guys. Of all the companies out there, they are the ones most motivated by a positive vision.
"I think Google the company has drifted from that vision and I worry about that because the individual decisions of product managers and developers at Google are really contrary to that internet vision of co-operating that I think was at the heart of Google's original success.
"They are going down that slippery slope that Microsoft went down. Microsoft was a company that was originally motivated by an incredibly positive vision - to put a PC in everyone's home. The founders need to wake up to that slippery slope and do something about it."
"Microsoft is the world's biggest software company, but despite its past supremacy is an underdog today," said Mr O'Reilly.
"I think the biggest problem with Microsoft is there is sort of two Microsofts. There is the one that gets this game. That is really trying to play in this open web world because I think there is sort of a natural tendency of the underdog to use openness to combat the strategic strengths of a rival.
"You know, we saw this with IBM getting behind Linux to combat Microsoft. And I think Microsoft is going to be forced into that position.
"Microsoft has a lot of fiefdoms and I don't know that they are going to necessarily do the right thing. They had this choice back in the 1990s when there were internal battles about whether to embrace Windows or the internet and they chose Windows. And they might do it again."
I asked: "It is interesting that you call Microsoft an underdog?"
"Yeah, they are totally the underdog. They are an underdog in search. They are an underdog in mobile. They are an underdog in location, across the board.
"Of course, they have this incredibly powerful position in the last era of software and I think they can leverage that in interesting ways but it also imposes a strategy tax - trying to protect the cash flows from that business, they can't necessarily do the things they would otherwise do."
And then there is one of the newer kids on the block - Facebook. The world's biggest social network with over 400 million users does not appear to be afraid of controversy, given what are starting to look like regular privacy slip-ups.
But Mr O'Reilly said despite its efforts to rule the web through the social graph, he likes the company and says they are the most open of all:
"Facebook, I would put Mark Zuckerberg in the same category as Steve Jobs. He would like to own it all but the thing that is so nice about Facebook is they are not in a position to own it all.
"They just don't have enough of the strategic assets. They don't have a phone platform. They are trying to get location data and add location data to Facebook. They are trying to get advertising to work. They are trying to get various kinds of additional features.
"But they really kind of just have this one big thing. I think that, from a company culture view, they would like to own everything. But from a pragmatic point of view, they are the ones who are most strategically open because they have this one thing, the social graph, and they are trying to make it as useful as possible."
I asked: "So is it a kind of one-trick pony at the moment?"
"I wouldn't call it a one-trick pony. I did say "one big thing". "One-trick pony" sounds incredibly disparaging.
"I really like their ability to turn strategically because if you look at the first iteration of the Facebook platform it was all inbound: build apps on Facebook. And now it is use Facebook capabilities: use Facebook data to enrich your own applications. And they have done a fabulous job of strategically envisioning where the world is going and aligning themselves with it."
Mr O'Reilly also touched on the power and influence of e-tailer Amazon and said:
"Amazon - incredibly visionary company. Jeff [Bezos] is one of the great geniuses of this age as well. Oh my god, how did a book retailer become the pioneer in cloud computing? They have done so much right. They just have a much weaker hand.
"Right now, if I were to categorise their strategy, it's a lot like Apple's: we want to own it all, at least in some verticals like books.
"But I think the more quickly they recognise that they can win through co-operation and making their services available to others, I think that will be actually stronger for them. They should be studying Facebook and how Facebook is applying their strategy."
Other players in this ecosystem include the microblogging service Twitter and, of course, the government.
"We haven't talked about Twitter - enormously interesting player particularly in real-time streaming.
"We haven't talked about Yahoo, which still has enormous data assets.
"We haven't talked about Nokia. We haven't even talked about the cellphone carriers: even though they seem backwards, they have enormous assets. They know more about us than Google in some ways.
"We haven't talked about banks. There are so many people and this is all coming together. The financial networks are going to merge into all this as well.
"But government, yes. Not only as a regulator but as a data provider. Government is going to be a big subsystem of this internet OS."
So how does Mr O'Reilly see it all shaking down with all these companies trying hard to control the web?
"I don't know who is going to win. All I am expressing is a hope that no-one wins and as a result we all end up with a kind of strategic detente which produces a more open world in which there are opportunities for innovation because one big player isn't effectively taking it all for themselves.
"I'm just happy when things are interesting and we're heading into very very interesting times."