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i-Technology Opinion: No Way Has Innovation in Open Source Reached Its Limit

Article in UK-Based Magazine 'The Economist' Seems Disappointingly FUD-Ridden

"Linux is good at doing what other things already have done, but more cheaply - but can it do anything new?" That is the question asked by Steven Weber, a political scientist at the University of California at Berkeley, and author of "The Success of Open Source" (Harvard University Press, 2004), in a "Special Report" dated March 16 published in The Economist this week.

Open source, Weber suggests, might have reached what he terms "a self-limiting state."

Although such an opinion strongly suggests that neither Weber or The Economist is aware of things like BitTorrent, that hasn't of course stopped it from doing the rounds of the Internet, especially at the author leaps on the anti-Wikipedia bandwagon by quoting professor Weber as saying, dismissively, as a further example of what he deems to be lack of open source innovation:

"Wikipedia is an assembly of already-known knowledge."
And here, it seems to me, we run into a classic problem. For the good professor clearly believes Wikipedia's recent problems corroborates the doubts and fears of those who, as the author of The Economist puts it, "question how something built by the wisdom of crowds can become anything other than mob rule." But surely Jimmy Wales and company aren't exemplifying Open Source methodology in Wikipedia so much as the attempt to aggregate knowledge collectively through an open content management system?

In other words it's an example of groupware rather than of Open Source.

What The Economist article heralds, then, is not so much a questioning of the innovation-levels within the open source software movement, as an inflexion point in the generalist discussion about Open Source, the very definition of which is about to change, if The Economist has its way.

The key passage is here [my emphasis]:

"Though the term [i.e., "open source"] at first described a model of software development (where the underlying programming code is open to inspection, modification and redistribution), the approach has moved far beyond its origins."
The author continues:
"From legal research to biotechnology, open-business practices have emerged as a mainstream way for collaboration to happen online. New business models are being built around commercialising open-source wares, by bundling them in other products or services. Though these might not contain any software "source code," the "open-source" label can now apply more broadly to all sorts of endeavour that amalgamate the contributions of private individuals to create something that, in effect, becomes freely available to all."
It is this switching of the points on his train of thought that prompts the author to write next that, in his view, "it is unclear how innovative and sustainable open source can ultimately be."

Although the article cites Firefox and MySQL as two examples of "just how powerful the open-source method can be," there is a substantial passage about SCO which seems totally uninformed by anything that has been written or said about the SCO vs IBM case in the past two years.

And to round things off, if any further indication were needed as to where the author's allegiances lie, The Economist article ends with a quote not from Linus Torvalds, Richard Stallman, Eric Raymond, Bruce Perens, or anyone of that ilk. No, it ends with the words of Microsoft's Bill Hilf:

"Even Microsoft has increasingly made some products open to outside review, and released certain code, such as for installing software, free of charge under licensing terms whereby it can be used provided enhancements are shared. 'We have quite a few programs in Microsoft where we take software and distribute it to the community in an open-source way,' gushes Bill Hilf, director of platform technology strategy at the company. Open source could enjoy no more flattering tribute than that."
All in all this is one of the least useful articles purportedly about Open Source that I can remember reading in the past three years.


More Stories By Jeremy Geelan

Jeremy Geelan is Chairman & CEO of the 21st Century Internet Group, Inc. and an Executive Academy Member of the International Academy of Digital Arts & Sciences. Formerly he was President & COO at Cloud Expo, Inc. and Conference Chair of the worldwide Cloud Expo series. He appears regularly at conferences and trade shows, speaking to technology audiences across six continents. You can follow him on twitter: @jg21.

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Most Recent Comments
Danny Strickland 03/27/06 03:37:31 PM EST

As long as computers do as they are named, that is they compute....then there really hasn't been anything new since the abacus. There has only been a slow but increasingly fast evolution in the means and ways of computing from simply adding and subtracting to using numbers to power equipment, to manufacture, to communicate, to publish, etc. As far as Linux and Open Source being glorified copiers, perhaps....but in order to be journalistically honest then Weber would have to admit that the multi-billion dollar firms Microsoft and Apple became that way by first copying Xerox Parc (Apple) and then Microsoft copying Apple. And every piece of software ever written is just a glorified way of shuffling binary code, ie numbers....thus my point about the abacus. The real innovation which continues apace in the Linux/OpenSource world is how a worldwide community in some cases, a very small team in other cases, or an individual, can write software that is "good enough", as good as, or even better than the bloated buggy commercial stuff being sold for hundreds to thousands of dollars. And promoting freedom as well.

Now that's innovation.

Wesley Parish 03/21/06 10:03:59 PM EST

It would be interesting to consider science from the same viewpoint, as the Free and Open Source Software communities refer back to the scientific method as inspiration, repeatedly. I seem to remember that as the cost of doing basic science grows higher, more scientists climb into the collaboration framework - consider the really big radio telescopes, etc. Has scientific discovery ceased now that the basis of the scientific method, broadly-based peer review, become a widely accepted part of the commercial software marketplace? Come on, let's take the title of The Economist as a pointer, shall we? Does peer review impact mostly on the development of economic theory? Or on economists' wallets?

RICHARD A MOORE 03/19/06 06:47:06 AM EST

>> Economist article ends with a
>> quote not from Linus Torvalds,
>> Richard Stallman, Eric Raymond,
>> Bruce Perens, or anyone of that
>> ilk

Raymond has become the spokesperson for the OSI (Open Source Initiative) and is now its president. The problem is that many of his arguments don't even stand up within the Open Source Community, let alone in the software world at large.

While Open Source has been effective in creating a compelling OS as an academic endeavor, now that Open Source has gone "commercial", the arguments no longer hold water.

Even within the Open Source community many people are refusing to release their source code. This concept of development worked fine while students and enthusiasts were working collaboratively on the Linux OS, but it will be interesting to see how this holds up as the community goes out and attempts to make money on their works.

Open Source development only seems to work as long as those contributing don't intent to commercialize their offerings.

Ahmet Dogramaci 03/19/06 05:36:36 AM EST

I bought Weber's book The Success of Open Source out of curiosity, but it turned out to be an eye opener. The author analyses the topic from social science perspective and did a great job of doing that. He puts the success of open source on an analytical framework and tries to extrapolate its meaning beyond computer programming. I loved reading it and highly reccomend it.

Glynn Moody 03/19/06 05:09:19 AM EST

The Economist is a strange beast. It has a unique writing style, born of the motto "simplify, then exaggerate"

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