Innovation, Free Software, and Blogs

Often we hear claims that free software is only good at cloning existing products, but doesn't create any innovation. Of course, this statement in its broadness is patently wrong; there are lots of lots of features, ideas, solutions present in various free software components, that didn't exist before. (As we all know, the whole internet was built on free software from the beginning, just to name one prominent example.)

What is true, is that the most visible, large voluntary projects (like KDE for example), tend to copy existing stuff. Why is that? Well, we have this more or less famous claim (don't ask me by whom), that real innovation always comes from individuals or small, tightly coupled groups of smart people. I couldn't agree more. (UNIX is a nice example, or the GUI inventors at Xerox PARC.)

If a project is small enough to be implemented by a single person, there is no problem -- just follow your vision and you are fine. Free software is actually in an advantage here, as the developement model makes core developers much more productive, allowing for considerably larger projects with a single major developer.

Larger projects requiring several developers on the other hand, are possible only if all the developers share a common vision. This is easy when cloning something existing -- everyone knows what the result is supposed to be. When someone has an innovative idea however, he is out of luck. He'll have a very hard time convincing the others to work on it, or even explain what he wants to achieve, as they do not share his vision. Only in a tightly coupled group it is possible for several developers to pick up new ideas, amplify and refine them; still share a common vision, when drifting further and further away from trodden tracks. Only in such a setup massive innovation has a chance. Voluntary internet projects are left out in the cold.

So, what's the moral? Well, there are two. One is that we probably need more commercial free software. (Letting people form tightly coupled groups by working physically close together, just like in proprietary software companies...) The other one is that we need more blogs.

With dedicated, competent people from all around the world sharing common interests coming together, voluntary internet projects have an advantage that easily makes up for the disadvantages of distributed development. And they have found methods to cope with the great disadvantages of missing direct communication surprisingly well. (With mailinglists, bugtrackers etc.) Well, with that one ugly exception: Effective exchange of innovative ideas. Blogs to the rescue.

Like no other medium, weblogs faciliate people sharing similar interests around the globe automagically forming ad-hoc communication networks -- thus introducing the great strength of voluntary internet projects to exchange of ideas. Like no other medium, weblogs faciliate brainstorming and spreading of ideas, picking up the best ones, refining and extending them, putting them in new contexts, drawing new conclusions, sparking off other, even more advanced ideas, in an indirect asynchronous manner -- thus making up for the lack of direct communication in distributed internet projects.

Maybe blogs can help remedy the lack of innovation in many larger free software projects.

Or maybe I'm just daydreaming, because I get too little sleep at night.

1 comment:

Anonymous said...

I found your blog via google by accident and have to admit that youve a really interesting blog :-)
Just saved your feed in my reader, have a nice day :)