Over the holidays, I had a couple of discussions with people who - although they clearly understand many aspects of open source software - still equate open source to a free (as in free beer) alternative to proprietary products. When you see postings on message boards for "An open source alternative to [Pick your favorite product]" or check out dedicated web-sites for open source alternatives, the free beer aspect is certainly what the majority of people have in mind.
The view that the open source community only creates free versions of proprietary products is also illustrated in Jaron Lanier' article Long Live Closed-Source Software! It is certainly true that many innovations come from proprietary companies (and I do encourage that to continue!), but I believe this is a very limited view.
Although most discussions about whether an open source project is innovative or simply a different version of a proprietary product can result in a flame-war, we have to remember that significant innovations are directly linked to open source projects. A prominent example is the World Wide Web where many open source projects have been instrumental in its success. This includes the first text browser, named WorldWideWeb, the first graphical browser, Mosaic (later licensed to Spyglass and further to Microsoft for the first versions of Internet Explorer), the first major web servers, NCSA httpd, and the main derivative, the Apache HTTP Server.
In addition to the open source projects directly linked to innovation, the availability of free (as in free beer) and freely adaptable (as in freedom) software enables innovation from developers without the economical means to buy a proprietary infrastructure as described in Open Source Economics Driving Web 2.0 Innovation.
What do you think?