Industry Profile: O'Reilly & Associates

First Published: Internet Business Journal
Date Published: 1993
Copyright © 1993 by Kevin Savetz

O'Reilly & Associates had its beginnings in 1978, when it was simply a technical writing consulting company. Today, O'Reilly & Associates is the leading publisher of books about UNIX and other open systems. O'Reilly's ubiquitous books on UNIX and the Internet have dominated and continue to dominate the market. Among other feats, O'Reilly & Associates has created a definite Internet presence for itself. Although there are thousands of businesses on the 'net, only a few have made themselves as accessible as "ORA.COM." Rather than simply setting up an electronic mail address for orders or technical support, O'Reilly offers FTPable source code to accompany its books, a gopher server, electronic product updates and a new WorldWideWeb-based publishing experiment.

Why has O'Reilly invested so much energy in the Internet? "Putting information out on the net wasn't something we thought a lot about at first," Tim O'Reilly, president of ORA, said. "It just seemed the right thing to do. One of the things that has always distinguished us as a publisher is that we come from the technical community we publish for. It seemed like the obvious thing to put examples for our books up for anonymous FTP." The Internet presence was used in unexpected ways - the company received book proposals, unsolicited e-mail, and gained the ability to monitor the Usenet for questions about the books.

O'Reilly's attitude about marketing has also helped the company along. "We believe that the best way to sell any product is to provide lots of useful information about it." (Indeed, the company's catalog - more akin to a magazine - is rife with Internet news, tips, book excerpts and detailed descriptions of the products.) "Then we started up a listserv, so we could send out a lot of this information to customers automatically, whenever a new book came out," O'Reilly said. One method of information distribution currently is the "ORA-news" mailing list, "with many thousands of subscribers."

ORA's presence on the 'net grew, and continues to grow. "Once gopher became widely available, it made sense to put a lot of that same information up for grabs there." ORA's latest online publishing experiment, the Global Network Navigator, was introduced October 1st.

"One thing that's very important is that we provide a lot of valuable information. We're not just trying to peddle our wares, but leading with stuff that people really want," he said.

How is this tactic working for the company? The Gopher and FTP servers are accessed hundreds of times daily. When ORA introduced the Global Network Navigator, they received thousands of subscription requests in the first few days. "We think our net presence is an important channel for our business. Because there aren't yet really good ways to order products directly over the net, it's hard to quantify just how great the impact is in dollars and cents." To protect the buyer, first-time buyers may not order via electronic mail, but once the company has credit card information on file, secure online ordering is possible.

"We're absolutely convinced that the information we provide over the net (and the word of mouth we get from net users passing along recommendations to others) is one of the most effective publicity methods available." This tact, combined with the speed of the Internet and the public's insatiable desire for knowledge, do have their minor problems: "Bookstores are always amazed when people come streaming in looking for a book they haven't even received yet, or have just gotten in. This is always particularly amazing to the international resellers. They haven't gotten used to the "same day" notification that e-mail provides. Our old distributors were always getting caught without books in hand. We've got a new network in place, so we have books overseas by air now within a couple of days. That's still not soon enough, but it's a lot better than six weeks," O'Reilly said.

'Net users have heard the term "commercialization of the Internet" seemingly hundreds of times in recent months. "One thing that we worried about some in the beginning was the AUP [EDITOR: is this appropriate use policies??] on the net. Those are breaking down now, but in any event, I was heartened fairly early on by a conversation with Steve Wolff of NSF. He pointed out that the NSF AUP approved activities that were in support of research and education, and added "If what you guys do isn't in support of research and education, I don't know what is."

Will businesses like O'Reilly soon [ITALICS]need to have[END ITALICS] information servers online to be competitive? "That's probably going too far," O'Reilly said, "but I would say that it's certainly a source of competitive advantage." Certainly for a technical business like ORA, it couldn't hurt.

Or, could it? O'Reilly worries about businesses running into trouble by treating the Internet like an enormous, free billboard or junk mail service, a tact that has already caused Internauts to flame several businesses alive. "If people [businesses] get on the net without understanding the net culture, it could actually work against them." He illustrates key concepts for businesses new to the Internet:

O'Reilly and associates has released some innovative products (everything from the UNIX Power Tools book and CD to "Smileys," a more-or-less complete listing of digital happyfaces :-) Will ORA stick with tried and true media, or venture into new methods of publishing?

"We've had an effort underway for three or four years to figure out the right way to do online publishing. We're very aware of the management dictum: What business are you really in? ('If the railroads had realized that they were in the transportation business they'd be airlines today.') We're in the information business, not the book business. We find things that people want to know, and then we try to tell them in ways that they find useful.

We still expect to do a lot with CD-ROM--more book/disk software combinations like UNIX Power Tools, but also information on CD. But the same technology can be used to make Internet-based delivery possible as well.

"It became clear to us years ago that we needed to figure out ways to deliver information online. Our first product was a Hypercard stack containing information from UNIX in a Nutshell and Learning the UNIX Operating System. We thought it might catch on if Apple's A/UX ever took off. More than that, it was just a way to learn something about online presentation.

"Somewhere in there, we decided to make a traveling Internet kiosk, which we could use to demo the Internet at bookstores, and help sell Ed Krol's book, the Whole Internet User's Guide and Catalog. We originally planned for the kiosk just to be a raw Internet connection, which people could use by following the instructions in Ed's book. But Pei Wei suggested that he could cook up a nifty 'point and click' version of the Whole Internet Catalog. Instead of typing in long commands to access Internet services, people could read the online catalog, and then just click a button to access a service they were interested in. We took one look at that, and said 'That's not a demo, that's a product.'"

It evolved into is a full-fledged "Internet Information Center" called the Global Network Navigator. GNN is a world-wide-web based service that can be accessed using browsers like NCSA Mosaic, Cello or Lynx.

O'Reilly and Associates will continue with more traditional media as well as Internet tools, CD-ROMs and anything else that falls into their business of publishing information about UNIX and the Internet.

To receive product and service news online from O'Reilly & Associates, you can subscribe to the "ora-news" mailing list. Address an e-mail message to "" and put your name and company name in the body of the message as:
subscribe ora-news "Your Name" of "Your Company"

SIDEBAR: The Global Network Navigator

The Global Network Navigator is a new, free service produced by O'Reilly and Associates, based on WorldWideWeb. GNN information is structured in five parts:

All this can be available instantly. "Contrast this with the typical print-based publication. If someone sees an advertisement that interests them, they can circle a number on a "bingo card'. Some weeks later, they receive a brochure in the mail. It's hardly ever enough. Part of the problem is that most brochures are poorly done, and supply more fluff than substance (which is what the buyer really wants). But more than that, it's just too expensive to provide a lot of information that the customer might not really want." O'Reilly hopes that the GNN will serve as a resource center, with as much valuable information as they - and the advertisers - can dream up.

To subscribe to the GNN, send e-mail to "". To use, it, you need an Internet connection, a World Wide Web (WWW) browser and a universal resource locator for GNN, or a local copy of the GNN "home page" (which is available via electronic mail.)

Articles by Kevin Savetz