Virtual Coffee with Conor O’Neill – Chief Product Officer at NearForm Research


15 minutes with an expert

Conor O Neill NearForm

As joint head of NearForm Research, and Chief Product Officer of NearForm, Conor O’Neill is responsible for connecting the activities of the Research teams to NearForm’s overall innovation strategy. When he’s not elbow-deep in technology, he’s outside running. Conor has completed 23 marathons and will (hopefully) have completed all six of the World Marathon Majors by March 2020.

What’s your role in NearForm?

I’ve always had a very broad role in the company and most recently I’ve been focused on bootstrapping NearForm Research with James Snell. Whilst James manages the Research activities themselves, I’m concerned with how those activities can enable our customers and communities to innovate. As we build the foundational blocks of the next generation web platform, we also have to guide our customers and the tech industry in general on how they can take advantage of those new capabilities.  

Why did NearForm Research come about?

We’ve always done research at NearForm and funded many individuals to do exceptional things in open source, but it wasn’t always done in a coordinated fashion. We wanted to put structure around this culture of innovation, without impeding people’s ability to try new and exciting ideas.

We believe that NearForm Research will enable those individuals to do more amazing things with even more support than before whilst also delivering important new functionality to the enterprise web ecosystem. 

What are the things that are bubbling in Research that don’t exist yet?

HTTP/3 is coming soon. It’s a protocol that will address some of the issues with the previous internet protocols (HTTP/1 and /2). It’s a total rewrite and it’s quite groundbreaking in addressing some of the issues with /1 and /2. (For specific technical information, read the interview with James Snell!)

What are the challenges with the HTTP/3 project?

From my perspective, the challenge is to get the conversations started about it now, before it’s even released. We want the industry to see how they can take advantage of the new functionality and begin creating applications that deliver even higher performance than before.

We believe strongly in creating a sustainable Open Source ecosystem. Apart from gaining powerful tools and functionality which we use to build applications for our customers, we also benefit from the world knowing we do this work and the referrals that result.

What else do you want the world to know about?

We want people to know that NearForm is also building new security functionality for Node.js itself. As one example, GitHub’s Electron toolkit allows you to build desktop apps, e.g. the Slack client. You don’t want that app to have access to all the resources on your computer or network, only those that it needs to function. Limiting what a Node.js process can do will achieve this.

I also want the world to know about our creation for the 2019 NodeConf EU Conference (which we host every year) – NodeWatch, or Bangle.js. It’s the first ever Open Source JavaScript-powered and ML-Powered smartwatch which we co-developed with Espruino. The response to it has been overwhelming. The idea that you can  do ML on an inexpensive piece of consumer electronics is shocking people. A whole new world opens up.

Bangle.js is the first hackable open source JS and TensorFlow-driven smartwatch. NodeConf EU 2019.

When you conduct all this great research in open source projects, are you directly paid for this work?

Generally no, but we may be doing paid OSS research in the future and some of the work we have done for customers has also been Open Sourced. 

If we’re seen as the experts building these technologies, then naturally companies will want to engage with us when they’re using them.

Do you have a dedicated team?

Yes, we’re a distinct group within NearForm. We have a dedicated engineering team of 8 people. includes Node.js core experts, C++ developers, fullstack JavaScript developers, ML/AI experts, product experts and soon dedicated DevOps and Design staff.

As our world heats up, we technologists will have to accept we are part of the problem and start offering ways of reducing our impact. NearForm’s historical focus on system performance has inadvertently meant that we’ve helped in a small way with this.

What’s the future for Open Source?

We need to make sure we continue to promote the idea of sustainable Open Source. Whilst everyone now gets the value of consuming OSS, we have a major job in convincing them to contribute back. Our InnerSource activities will be an important part of this. In using Open Source concepts internally, many customers will see the benefits of also contributing externally.

What are the overall technology trends that you’re seeing?

In NearForm, we often talk about the future of the web platform, but that can sometimes be misunderstood as the browser-world only. Our view is far broader and encompasses everything from the tiniest IoT device through phones and desktops and onwards to drones and global P2P networks. It’s all the web in our eyes and it’s clear that all of the dataflows will just accelerate.

I recently wrote about getting TensorFlow Lite running on a $1 microcontroller. This means that ML-everywhere is now a reality for even the cheapest of devices. This has massive implications not just for data volumes, bandwidth and performance but also for privacy and data control.

ML in DevOps is clearly going to be huge and very soon. The move in recent years to microservices now means that orchestration and traceability become major challenges, hence the rise of Kubernetes. We believe that the application of ML here could reap major benefits for reliability and security with perhaps the loss of deterministic outputs.

As our world heats up, we technologists will have to accept we are part of the problem and start offering ways of reducing our impact. NearForm’s historical focus on system performance has inadvertently meant that we’ve helped in a small way with this. I talked about OSS sustainability earlier – we now have to talk long and hard about the broader topic of sustainability in tech.

Finally, I’d like to mention Innersource again.  It’s reaping real benefits in terms of efficiency, code re-use, better quality outputs and happier employees. By making collaboration a core principle and applying the principles of Open Source within an organisation, companies are already seeing the business value. The fact that it also helps with sustainability is a free bonus. We’re looking forward to helping even more companies understand how to embrace this movement.

Are you already working on the creation for NodeConfEU 2020?

The NodeConf EU attendee response to Bangle.js was so overwhelming that we decided to give one to every NearFormer. We’ve been thrilled with the excitement it has caused internally. Our 2020 plans are well underway. You can rest assured it will push the envelope even more than the 2019 device. But beyond that you’re going to have to wait and see. 

Unless of course you want to sponsor it, in which case you can help define its specification!

Thank you for your time Conor!

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