The proprietary problem with innovation and scale

Is open-source innovation dead? The kind that has been kicked around lately was never alive.

Glyn Moody takes Dave Weinberger's Harvard Business Review article on the difficulties singular organizations have with scale and runs with it, arguing:

It is deeply ironic that once upon a time Linux - and Linus - was taxed with an inability to scale. Today, though, when Linux is running everything from most of the world's supercomputers to the new class of sub-laptops like the Asus EEE PC and increasing numbers of mobile phones, it is Microsoft that finds itself unable to scale its development methodology to handle this range. Indeed, it can't even produce a decent desktop system, as the whole Vista fiasco demonstrates.

This flies in the face of Jaron Lanier's ill-advised attempt to discredit open source as an innovative force. As with so many, Lanier completely botches his understanding of open source, which is surprising since he should understand it well. What Lanier fails to recognize is that the "source" part of the equation doesn't change with open or proprietary source - not the initial seed, anyway. It's what happens afterwards that matters.

Hence, Lanier can write:

Open wisdom-of-crowds software movements have become influential, but they haven't promoted the kind of radical creativity I love most in computer science. If anything, they've been hindrances.

It seems that Lanier is stuck in the wrong-headed fetish that open source necessarily equates to communal thought. It doesn't. It's a strategy for ensuring the relevance and longevity of code post-innovation/creation more than it is a way for a group to innovate something. I'm not a fan of committees - GroupThink yields nothing productive. Open source is not GroupThink.

Instead, what we see at Microsoft and at other large companies is more akin to GroupThink in Lanier's model than open source is. Open source is still the province of the individual developer, coming up with her ideas and posting them in the form of code on Sourceforge. Microsoft and IBM may try to mimic that, but they're always going to be stymied by quarterly objectives and corporate politics. Seen much innovation in Microsoft Office lately? Exactly.

Back to Glyn and Weinberger. We are rapidly reaching the point where information and intelligence is so distributed - and we have the means to tap into that distribution - that it makes no sense for any particular company or individual to try to corner the market on information and intelligence. Rather, the smart companies are looking for creative ways to corral that collective, individual intelligence.

Nearly always their ideas start with one bright developer. The genius of open source and open development is that they don't have to end there.

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About the author

    Matt Asay is chief operating officer at Canonical, the company behind the Ubuntu Linux operating system. Prior to Canonical, Matt was general manager of the Americas division and vice president of business development at Alfresco, an open-source applications company. Matt brings a decade of in-the-trenches open-source business and legal experience to The Open Road, with an emphasis on emerging open-source business strategies and opportunities. He is a member of the CNET Blog Network and is not an employee of CNET. You can follow Matt on Twitter @mjasay.

     

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