With open source software (OSS), the immediate costs are generally very low. Get a computer and an internet connection (which you probably would anyway), and you’ve got all the expenses covered to benefit from OSS – and participate in its development. Infinite audience, negligible variable costs, very low barrier to entry. Other than your own time, skills, and effort.
The result? Explosive growth – SourceForge lists some 160,000 projects (or 380,000, depending where you look). Its two top projects (file sharing), have been downloaded half a billion times each.
Is it good? Sure, let a thousand OSS projects bloom, or more, why not.
But there’s also a lot of wheel re-invention going on (I should know, I’m an expert on that!). Some of it, and I fear quite a bit more than most people would be inclined to acknowledge, is extremely unfortunate: “hey, feature/app X in language Y is neat, let’s redo it in language Z!”
Is OSS leading to innovation? I’m not so sure. I suspect that when people stumble upon a potentially truly great idea, they will be tempted to re-consider whether they really want to share that idea with the world, and risk diluting it – by others adding more ideas (in the best scenario), or by others adopting it and succeeding at drawing more attention and claiming credit for it.
Another major hurdle is that turning an innovative idea into an innovative solution requires a lot of hard work. For “big” innovations, you’ll need to get all the right volunteers involved and motivated, have excellent people skills, and show true leadership. It’s easy to hit a wall somewhere along the road and lose interest before the product is finished (I should know, I’ve been there far too often).
It wouldn’t surprise me if for all the people sharing their ideas and working on them in public, there were at least as many others soaking up everything they can find and thinking “hey, maybe I can do something with this and become famous” – or even rich, by switching to a closed source software model. Even the GPL can’t fully prevent that, as long as you keep your software secret (and don’t get caught by having “similar bugs”!). The mere prospect of that happening can drain all motivation from an open source developer (see also: Prisoner’s Dilemma).
So all in all, my impression is that OSS isn’t all that innovative and collaborative as it’s often cracked up to be. Do you need an example? How about “Google”, which was built on the shoulders of open source. Sure, they do give back a lot, also in the form of open source. In fact, they provide what is arguably the greatest free service on the internet. But genuine collaboration w.r.t. their core innovations? No way.
There’s nothing “wrong” at all with this, btw. It’s just not really open.
To be continued tomorrow… Open Source Hardware