Tuesday, January 8, 2008

Open Source Software - Innovative or Just Free?

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?

Are open source projects innovative

1 comment:

Jay Godse said...

Very thought-provoking Palle.

I think an underlying factor in the debate is that there is not a clear distinction between invention and innovation in the minds of many people. They are one and the same. The article in Wikipedia puts it best when they say, "Invention is the conversion of cash into ideas. Innovation is the conversion of ideas into cash".

To convert ideas into cash means that you have to get people to pay for products and services based on the ideas, which means that you have to use the idea to build something that people really value. For example, Xerox PARC invented the computer graphical user interface (GUI) with the mouse as an input device. However, it was Microsoft that led the innovation of building products that used GUIs and the mouse and turned them into cash. In the open source world, Matz invented the Ruby programming language, but it was the work of DHH and 37signals.com that brought Ruby into the hands of developers as a valuable web programming tool through the Ruby on Rails framework. (These Rails programmers turned it into cash). DHH was the innovator.

So if turning ideas into cash is the criteria for innovation, open source software is innovative. Much of the web is powered by open source software and open standards such as Linux, FreeBSD, Apache, MySQL/PostgreSQL/SQLite, PHP, Perl, Python, Ruby, XML, HTTP, XMPP, RSS, ATOM. In the embedded software world, technologies such as gcc dominate, and emerging technologies such as Linux (for embedded systems), SQLite, and Lua are gaining dominance. This software and these open standards enable vast amounts of software and product development that would not be economically feasible with proprietary technologies, and result in the development of some remarkable products that sell and make lots of folks money.

So....open source software is innovative.