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What I’d like to see happen is genuine open-source innovation. But I’m afraid this
cannot happen, because real innovation requires a lot of money, and corporations
remain the best way to fund such innovation, in general with high hopes to make even
more money in return.
infrastructure or commodity software where the requirements are well-established, but that it can’t really innovate. I laugh when I hear this, because I remember when the common wisdom was exactly the opposite — that we hackers were great for exploratory, cutting-edge stuff but couldn’t deliver reliable product.
How quickly people forget. We built the World Wide Web, fer cripessakes! The original browser and the original webservers were built by a hacker at CERN, not in some closed-door corporate shop. Before that, years before we got Linux and our own T-shirts, people who would later identify their own behavior correctly as open-source hacking built the Internet.
It seems to me that bringing the Internet and the World Wide Web into being ought to count as
enough “innovation” for any one geological era. But it didn’t start or stop there. Nobody even
conceived of cross-platform graphics engines before the X window system. The entire group of
modern scripting languages descends from open-source Perl, and almost all draw critical
strengths and innovative drive from the size and diversity of their open-source communities.
Even in user-interface design, much of the most innovative work going on today is in open
source. Consider for example the Facades system. Or just the astonishing, eye-popping visual
experimentalism of Compiz/Fusion under Linux.
It’s actually corporations who have trouble innovating. Innovation is too disruptive of
established business models and practices; it’s risky, and it involves coping with those annoying
prima donnas at the R&D lab. Consequently, even well-intentioned big companies like Xerox that
are smart enough to fund real research centers like Xerox PARC often reject the truly
groundbreaking ideas from their own researchers. Today you’d be extremely hard pressed to
The process of innovation and deployment in open source is of course not friction-free, but it
certainly looks that way when compared to the corporate world. One of my favorite current
examples is the way Guido van Rossum and the Python community are gearing up to re-invent
their language for its 3.0 release. Their “Python Enhancement Proposal” process for fostering
and filtering novel ideas by individual contributors repays careful study; like the Internet RFC
process (on which it’s clearly modeled) it produces a combination of innovative pace and
successful deployment that even Bell Labs in its heyday could not have dreamed of sustaining.
de Dinechin, and people like him, have a simple and linear model of how innovation works. Pay a
bright guy like de Dinechin, stand back, and watch the brilliant stuff come out and change the
world. In this model, if you don’t pay bright guys like de Dinechin, innovative stuff doesn’t come
out because they’re too busy grinding out COBOL or something so they can eat — no world-
changes, so sad.
This model is very appealing to people like de Dinechin, who have an understandably strong desire to be paid for being smart and creative. Heck, it appeals to me for exactly the same reason. Unfortunately, and unlike de Dinechin, I know that it is seriously false-to-fact.
I have a very different model of how innovation, at least in software, actually works. One of its
premises can be expressed by what I shall now dub the Iron Law of Software R&D: If you are a
programmer developing innovative software, the odds that you will be permitted to finish it and
it will actually be deplayed are, other things being equal, inversely proportional to the product
of your depth of innovation and your job security.
That is, the cushier your corporate sinecure is, the less likely it is that you will make a
difference. The more innovative your software is, the less likely it is that you will actually be
supported all the way to deployment.
The reason for this is dead simple. Corporations exist to mitigate investment risk. The
large and more stable a corporation is, the more resistant it is to disruption in its practices
and business model including the unvoidable short-term disruptions from what might be
long-term innovative gain.
“There’s an argument commonly heard these days that open-source software is all very
well for infrastructure or commodity software where the requirements are
well-established, but that it can’t really innovate.”
That line grabbed my attention, because it characterizes the basic argument Levi-Strauss
made about bricolage in Third World communities especially. He said that “bricoleurs”
were capable of cobbling together different bits of existing technology or even repairing
and maintaining existing technologies. They were incapable, however, of truly novel
technical innovation, which could only come about within organized industrial society.
For a conceptual opponent, Deleuze and Guattari’s discussion of “nomad science” offers a wonderful contrasting view, especially with their discussion of the development of gothic architecture in Mille Plateaux.
Eric Raymond makes a fool of himself with this post. To begin with, he quotes only a
fraction of my “screed”, makes fun of “M’sieu de Dinechin”, and barely avoids calling me a
blithering idiot. Said idiot wrote what is arguably the first real 3D game for micro-computer
as a student, and later went on to design the enterprise-grade virtual machine monitor of
the largest computer corporation in the world today. I’m honored this makes me
“reasonably bright” in ESR’s eyes…
Yet for all the name calling, ESR totally misses my point: developers need to eat, and
corporations provide vast majority of the necessary funds, even to open-source
contributors like ESR or myself. My XL work is all open-source, but I would not have been
able to afford it without a regular source of income. That’s my point, and if ESR wrote a
single word to address it, I didn’t see it.
Now bringing you back...
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