Can open source innovate?

by Matt Asay

Over on Port 25 Anandeep is wondering, in essence, "Is open source structurally incapable of innovating?" Anandeep answers correctly ("Yes"), but not for the same reasons I'd give (and have given here and here).

He writes:
[C]an futuristic experimental projects be developed using the open source process?

I think that the answer is yes. But these kinds projects cannot be developed in a pure open source community process like that of Linux. An institution like a university or a company has to bring to it critical mass. The US government paid for a lot of ALICE - before it could be put out there in a true community process.
I agree with Anandeep that having an organization makes open source innovation easier. After all, an open source company is no different in its ability to innovate than Microsoft, a proprietary startup, or anyone else is. It just chooses to license its software differently.

But, by the same token, what is to stop an individual from innovating a new project - perhaps the "Cloud OS" that Anandeep talks about - and releasing it as open source instead of proprietary software? Nothing. There is no structural defect in open source to prevent this, and to prevent a community from growing up around it, anymore than there is a structural defect in proprietary software from doing the same.

That said, it may be very true that there are plenty of legal reasons (If I develop something on my employer's time, it will likely own the innovation, for example), money reasons (I may not believe I yet have a strong enough profit model in open source to convince me that I can keep it open source and still become a billionaire, for example), and other reasons. But structural incapacity in the open source model itself?

I don't think so.


Simon Hibbs
2007-02-06 14:55:20
Much OS software such as gcc, BSD/Linux, etc is implementing open standards, but that's no crime and they still have to compete with proprietary products such as AIX and Solaris that are also just implementations.

I can make a pretty strong argument that much proprietary software is as much, if not more derivative than any open source project. After all Active Directory is just an implementation of LDAP and Kerberos. It's not as if Microsoft invented DNS and DHCP either. But there's nothing wrong with any of this. AD is a great product, and so is OpenLDAP.

There's plenty of orriginal stuff in Open Source too, such as Perl/Parrot, Ruby/Rails and Python. HTTP and web technology were open source from the get-go. There's plenty more. Open source isn't a recipe for innovation, it's merely a question of what you do with the design. Do you keep it to yourself or do you share? Either way is a legitimate option that says little or nothing about the value of that creativity.

2007-02-06 17:32:55
Did you mean to phrase the question as "Is open source structurally capable of innovating?" Right now you have said it can't innovate at at all.
Anandeep Pannu
2007-02-08 18:57:51

I think I didnt articulate it clearly - but what I was (trying) to say was not that open source could NOT innovate. That would be foolish of me - there's ton of evidence to the contrary.

I was talking about the motivations and environment behind successful open source projects. I agree with Joel that the most successful open source were motivated by the need for an alternative and the need to fix problems. I was trying to see if there were very many successful open source projects in which the motivation was purely experimental.

I didn't find too many - and those that I found were mostly university or company supported research projects. There is nothing stopping a single guy from writing a Cloud OS (that would be great) and a community developing from it. But how likely is that to be sustained? Even Linus started work on Linux as an alternative to Minix! And there was already a thriving community on Minix, mostly in universities.

ps.I have a soft spot for Minix - in my very first OS class, I developed an alternative file system for it. We very imaginatively named our file system the "Micrix file system".