TED has revolutionised the ideas industry, in part by putting old wine in new bottles
THE first TED conference in 1984 was such a damp squib that the organisers did not hold a second one for six years.
Today TED is the Goliath of the ideas industry.
The heart of the enterprise is TED's twice-yearly conference at which big ideas are presented in short, punchy talks.
On March 17th-21st，
around 1,200 TEDsters will gather in Vancouver to listen to the likes of Bill Gates and Nicholas Negroponte celebrating TED's 30th birthday and thinking great thoughts.
The conference has also spawned an array of businesses, albeit not-for-profit ones.
The organisation has built an electronic warehouse of more than 1,700 previous talks, at TED.com.
These are free to view and, so far, they have been watched nearly 2 billion times.
It has generated a mass movement:
volunteers have put on more than 9,000 TED-like events called TEDx in 150 or so countries since 2009.
It has established a TED prize, a TED fellowship programme and a line of TED e-books.
And it has become a central part of the world's star-making machinery:
an invitation to speak at TED can turn an obscure academic into a superstar guru and a struggling journalist into a celebrated writer.
Such success has inevitably produced a backlash.
Critics dismiss TED as the Starbucks of intellectual life.
Evgeny Morozov, a technology pundit, says it has become something ludicrous, and a little sinister.
Benjamin Bratton, a sociologist, goes further and suggests that TED is a recipe for civilisational disaster.
In his view TED really stands for middlebrow, megachurch infotainment.
The Onion, a satirical website, has produced a series of Onion talks including A future where all robots have penises.
There is certainly some truth in these criticisms:
any organisation that invites Sting to its 30th birthday party is in danger of jumping the shark.
But criticism must be tempered by admiration for what TED has achieved.
It does indeed have a weakness for celebrities.
But it has also discovered hundreds of lights hidden under bushels:
the most viewed TED video, with 25m downloads, features Ken Robinson, a once-obscure British educationalist.
It is true that TED shrinks big ideas into bite-like chunks.
But it has also demonstrated that there is a huge market for big ideas.
TED is the perfect example of the power of disruptive innovation.
The ideas business was already overcrowded when it began to flex its muscles.
The BBC rejected an early TED talk on the ground that it was too intellectual.
But TED has rewritten the rules.
Conference regulars compare the corporate pabulum that they are served at Davos with the intellectual sustenance they receive at TED.
Businesses now hire it to run their in-house conferences.
Publishers compete to sign up its speakers.
TED has done more to advance the art of lecturing in a decade than Oxford University has done in a thousand years.
The man at the heart of this disruption is Chris Anderson, a journalist turned entrepreneur who calls himself TED's curator.
Mr Anderson made his money publishing computer and business magazines.
He bought TED in 2001 and set about turning a cult conference into a multimedia phenomenon,
by bringing together the two worlds that he knew best:
the journalistic one of storytelling and the high-tech world of disruptive change.
And he provided TED with both a powerful business model and a pipeline of polished output.
TED uses a shrewd combination of paid-for and free products, the purpose of the latter being to generate buzz.
Tickets to its five-day conferences cost at least $6,000.
It sells an ever-growing array of TED-branded products.
But it has also been generous with its intellectual capital，
not only giving away videos on the internet but also granting licences to enthusiasts to stage TEDx events.
To ensure quality it sends all speakers a stone tablet engraved with the TED Commandments, starting with:
Thou shalt not simply trot out thy usual schtick.
Talks must last for just 18 minutes—Long enough to be serious and short enough to hold people's attention, as Mr Anderson puts it.
Potential speakers are carefully auditioned and extensively trained—and subtly reminded that only successful talks will be put online.
TED is constantly striving to improve its products and expand its pipeline.
It has invested heavily in camera crews and stagecraft.
It has experimented with shorter formats such as TED in three minutes.
It has even introduced an American Idol element:
about half of the speakers at each conference are chosen by competitive auditions that take place all over the world and are theoretically open to anyone.
TED has become the leading ideas festival of the digital world.
It draws much of its audience as well as many of its star speakers from the technocracy.
It champions tech solutions to problems:
its talks tend to give the impression that there is no ill in the world that cannot be solved with a laptop and an internet connection.
But there is also something old-fashioned about it.
TED meetings have a revivalist feel,
from the preacher's promises of salvation to the happy-clappy congregation.
It is revealing that Mr Anderson is the son of missionaries, and, in rather Victorian fashion,
grew up in India before going to Oxford.
TEDsters can also sound like modern versions of Dale Carnegie, the author of The Art of Public Speaking and How to Win Friends and Influence People.
A striking number of TED talks preach that you can have it all, a great career and a fulfilled life, if only you work hard and follow your passion.
The ultimate secret of TED's success is not its commitment to disruptive innovation but its ability to repackage old-time religion for the digital age.