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Is Open Source Innovative?

In making the case that the window for Linux “worldwide domination” in the mobile space has elapsed – its role as the foundation of the open source Android platform notwithstanding – Forrester analyst Mike Gualtieri argues that open source isn’t fundamentally innovative.

Open source never seems to be the innovator. Instead, it seems to disrupt pricing power for established technologies.

There are numerous counterexamples to this; my analyst colleague from the 451 Group Rachel Chalmers cites Unix, others the underlying protocols of the internet and I myself would point to the more recent work that browser teams like Chrome and Mozilla are doing or the pre-Cambrian explosion currently occurring in the non-relational database market. But superficial questions like “can open source innovate” obscure real, fundamental changes in the way that software is being developed today. Changes that are important.

The fact is that neither open source nor proprietary development is intrinsically innovative. The availability of source code has no real bearing on how unique the underlying ideas contained within it may be. What people mean when they say open source cannot innovate is that the profit motive, or more accurately profit models, associated with proprietary software development create greater incentives to innovate.

Which may or may not be true; my own view is that attitudes towards monetization of software generally appear to be somewhat cyclical. Tracing the history of software revenue models from IBM to Microsoft to Google to Facebook, attitudes towards the importance of software as the primary revenue mechanism come full circle [coverage].

In any event, the profit motive is only an incentive for innovation for software that is written to be sold. Which a great deal of software today was not, originally.

What does the following list of projects have in common?

  • Cassandra
  • Git
  • Hadoop
  • jQuery
  • Memcached
  • MongoDB
  • Rails

The answer is that none of them were originally written for purpose of sale. Unlike the Oracle database or Windows, these projects – all of which have achieved mainstream success – were written not to be sold but to solve a problem.

This inverts the traditional software startup model, in which a market opportunity is identified and solutions are built towards it.

The more common software development path today is reverse engineering projects from existing solutions. Rails, the framework built by 37 Signals, was a byproduct of the construction of their primary SaaS products (one reason their founders recommend selling your same). Git was written by Linus Torvalds to replace BitKeeper in managing changes to the Linux source tree. 10Gen, the authors of MongoDB, were originally a Platform-as-a-Service company, not a database vendor. Cassandra was built by Facebook to manage their Inbox. Memcached was written by Danga for Livejournal. Hadoop was written to build Yahoo’s search index. And so on.

That many of these technologies have been commercialized after the fact changes nothing about the substance of the original idea. The history clearly demonstrates that the incentives for software innovation may vary widely. The acceleration of this extracted-software model is not entirely attributable to the commercialization of the internet, but certainly that provoked substantial adaptation – much of what we consider innovative in the software infrastructure space has come from the web – while enabling would be sellers of these technologies by making marketing, sales and customer acquisition more efficient.

The reality is that the nature of how, where and why software is developed has fundamentally changed. There are many reasons to develop software. What the incentive is for a given project, and what that dictates with respect to the development model employed, is likely to say less about whether the software is innovative than the nature of the problem it is intended to solve.

Innovation is a function of incentive, not the software development model.

Categories: Open Source.

  • ZUrlocker

    Great post.  However, I disagree with one point: “What people mean when they say open source cannot innovate is that the profit motive, or more accurately profit models, associated with proprietary software development create greater incentives to innovate”

    This may be true in some cases.  But what I have typically heard is “Open source doesn’t innovate… therefore it’s inferior, or unimportant.”  There are many examples of where open source software has successfully challenged incumbent closed source products in existing categories such as JBoss, MySQL, Alfresco, SugarCRM, Ketl, Eclipse, Pentaho, JasperSoft, R, Eucalyptus etc.  I think people sometimes confuse the fact that they are targeting an existing market and category to imply that they are therefore not innovative and unimportant.  But I think anyone associated with these particular projects could cite half a dozen ways in which each one is innovative, whether it’s the technical architecture, features, ease-of-use, marketing approach etc.  

    I believe that these and other successful open source projects have succeeded because they are innovative and not just because they are cheaper.  But not every open source project is innovative and there are certainly many that have failed for that and other reasons.

    • stephen o’grady

      Indeed. Innovation can and does occur frequently within well established software categories. 

      More to the point, the inappropriate conflation of technical innovation and importance is a critical mistake in many superficial – and frequently, biased – analyses of the merits of open source. Innovation can not only occur in source code, but in the economic model around it. We will, I believe, see this as open source firms like 10gen and Sonatype pursue data based revenue strategies. 

      • Roberto Galoppini

        Also the opposite stands as well: a lot of open source software often doesn’t cross the chasm (therefore are perceived as not important), loosing the opportunity to be considered innovative just because people don’t know them.

        A universe of open source projects probably fall in this class, for a number of reasons: developers and communities behind are not interested into working on a commercial ground, they open a life-style company, they failed to convince VCs, etc.

        Innovation happens elsewhere, often when we don’t watch.

        • stephen o’grady

          Conversely, however, even small open source projects stand a better chance for being recognized for their innovation, because by definition they have a wider potential audience. There is a lot of interesting software innovation within industry that never sees the light of day because it’s a competitive advantage, and therefore is kept proprietary. 

          Otherwise, point taken.

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  • Patrick Berry

    Most innovation in the web server market is coming from open source.

    • stephen o’grady

      Indeed. Nginx et al, not to mention the caching and proxy layers, are almost universally open source. 

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  • Bob Blogger

    Open Source vs Patents.  Innovation can come from both, let’s just agree on that.  But let’s be real people …. if you had a great idea that would take a serious amount of your precious time/life to complete, you’d probably be more motivated to take it on if some financial gain came from it.  So both open-source and entrepreneurialism needs to be encouraged.  The world needs to innovate in both models, encourage open source collaboration while also encouraging greater marketplace competition by lowering barries to entry.