Open Source, Open Innovation

by Jono Bacon

You know, I like Open Source, and I also like free software. Although this may not be the most shocking revelation that you have heard from an article bearing my name, I wanted to not only clarify my affection of this software, but also one of the reasons why I love this software.

We all come from different computing backgrounds, and although I sailed the fairly common seas of a Commodore heritage, there are of course many of you who have trudged through the darkened waters of restricted technologies that
not only restrict what you can do, but also restrict what you can't do. These technologies have typically been developed by companies with more of an interest in profit margins, marketability and sales rather than the technology and how it works. Luckily, a ray of hope is shining into the IT industry, and we can thank the legions of free software hackers firmly seated behind their whirring PC's the world over.

If you take an honest look at software usage, it is quite clear that Microsoft play a very dominant role in the IT world. Not only does this behemoth sell a a stable of Operating Systems but they also sell productivity software, servers, development tools, consumer applications and games
consoles. Despite whether you may look at Microsoft's dominance as a monopoly or whether it is the media tarnished success of a large corporation, there is no doubt that Microsoft technology runs many computers.

With the problem of dominance comes equality. Microsoft is a closed source company. They sell closed sourced software, use proprietary file types and generally hold their cards fairly close to their collective chest. When you combine a large multi-application vendor and a closed sourced OS, there is a real distinctive possibility that the vendor may not have provided as complete and thorough details on their OS API as you may think. This is a possibility that immediately puts other application vendors at a disadvantage, particularly if they are competing with with the OS vendor in the first place. The problem here of course is that we will never know - closed sourced software cannot give us an authorotive answer. I am certainly not accusing Microsoft of holding certain API details from the general application development community, but the possibility exists, and while it exists, it poses a problem.

Irrespective of whether you say yay or nay to this possibility, the other issue with relying on a closed source base to build software on is that of experience. Microsoft have been writing Microsoft software that runs on Microsoft systems for years. As such, this Microsoft software may run
better on Microsoft systems because Microsoft have been writing Microsoft software for a long time and Microsoft know more about how the Microsoft machine works than anyone. Can you see a pattern here?

Free software has given the world a level playing field. If the code is available and closed source components are not relied upon, it means that every developer and business from a tiny startup to a huge corporation is on the same footing. The code is open, the market is open and the possibility
for innovation is open. This level playing field also paves the way for a variety of software applications that may be either redundant or difficult to compete with from a Microsoft technology based standpoint. Take as an example the actual GUI desktop that forms Windows. Although many would constitute this desktop Windows itself, the reliance of the GUI toolkit that is part of the Windows OS seems to not only bind the user to the desktop, but also binds the developer too. This is simply not the case with an open source system, and this is why we have a variety of development options for free software systems.

This open source platform really unchains the possibility of smaller businesses doing a real and viable business. Take as an example href="">Trolltech who develop, sell, and support the popular Qt toolkit. Trolltech have worked exceedingly hard to really push out a great product, and not only has this small company worked to develop
quality, but has also worked to keep it compatible with the open source culture that actually made Qt a viable option. Trolltech will know very well that the KDE desktop is one of the
main reasons why people will have heard about Qt in the first place; a fact that the company can leverage on to push the software into different areas and to different consumers. Not only have Trolltech bended to the reality of running a business and selling software, they have done it in such a way that really provides a quality product that keeps both commercial and free software developers happy. This knock on effect will have no doubt increased the development community of KDE and free software Qt hackers. Many would say this is a truly symbiotic relationship in action.

Pushing the example of open innovation a touch further, another case where free software has opened the doors to smaller scale development is with href=""> who sell applications and tools that are cross platform. It is clear that were well aware of the potential of Qt, and although they initially tried to write KDE
only software, the company has broadened out to create multi-platform native applications. Once again, have a viable environment to exist
in because the open source platform is a relatively un-tendered base for commercial software. Not only have put together a distributed network of developers from around the world, they have put together and refined a truly modern company that is writing software that will run irrespective of the OS. This factor not only opens up Linux as an option for customers, but does not tie them into the Linux platform in a hostile way; the customer can choose - a factor that cannot be said for various other software vendors.

The reason why I am using Trolltech and as examples is because I think they are really interesting companies that are pushing for a warm relationship between a free software and commercial environment. I have worked with both Trolltech and as a freelancer, and the
reason why I am writing this is not to bolster any kind of sales or promotion, but to give examples of companies are sensitive to their open source heritage as well as their product lines. These two companies have proved that a balance of of quality products, honesty and support of the community can really help develop a business.

I like groups, individuals and businesses who work hard at creating a product that is unique, fair and representative of their passion for their work. I really have a kind of sympathy with vendors that are pushing to wedge their foot in the door, particularly when the market is driven by huge companies with possibly inferior products. It can be done of course, and the list of companies who have a hand in the Open Source framework is increasing all the time. In the same way that fans of a style of music often remain faithful to lesser known artists, I believe that many Open Source and free software users have a real sympathy for companies such as this. Setting up your own business and making money is difficult enough, let alone in an industry dominated by huge businesses where you try to retain some community spirit.

The Open Source and free software community has created a real recipe for equality in the market, and with the predicted growth of the Linux platform in 2004, this rather young industry could see more and more players moving
into the field.

What do you think? Do you think this kind of equality in industry can work? Share your thoughts...


2004-02-18 01:51:11
I think your analaysis is pretty objective, but wrong. You omit the fact that there is a unifying reason behing many people against Microsoft, and that reason is the number one reason why you don't see much fight.

If you remember, there are and there were many number of zealots or should I call extra-zealots that attacked Trolltech. I am pretty sure there are ones who attacked theKompany, but I didn't heard any for that one. Anyway, once we don't have Microsoft, you will realize that zealots who want everything to be free may attack these companies also. Actually it is these companies which suggest that we don't need to get rid of Microsoft after all. Clearly you can defend free source code and then have some closed source at the same time. If you do that, Microsoft is pretty ok for me, because they clearly have open source projects too, as well as free programs.

So in general, open source is on the wrong road. GPL is particularly going to hurt open source. There are projects out there which is open source, but you can never use them in combination with GPLed projects because of the restrictions of GPL.

2004-02-19 09:36:04
You have mistaken my view as someone who wants to get rid of Microsoft. This is not true. I have no desire for Microsoft to not be here - my article was merely extolling the virtues of small startups who have a great product and are wishing to push it.

The thing about Linux and free software is that it does indeed create a level playing field. Everyone is on the same terms with regards to the technology - yes there are issues with larger companies having more resources/money, but the actual technology is level.

I feel free software and non-free software can indeed work well symbiotically - this is partly why I praise Trolltech and I do not believe the GPL is suitable for everyone, but for many it is indeed a great choice.