Staking the Myth that Free Software Can't Innovate

Tuesday Dec 4th 2007 by Bruce Byfield
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Creativity is the product of gifted individuals, and can only be diluted or lost in a collective – or so says the myth that just won't die.

Like Dracula, the old myth that free software can't innovate keeps returning. Its latest incarnation is in the form of a column by Jaron Lanier in the December issue of Discover Magazine. (The column isn't online yet, but Lanier has disparaged community-based creativity many times, in particular when talking about Wikipedia). But this accusation is one that's overdue for a stake through the heart. Those who have experienced free software projects firsthand know that they depend on innovation and genrally foster it. And although this isn't a highly innovative era for the computer industry as a whole, free software is an exception -- and likely to become more of one as it continues to come into its own. In fact, the very idea of free software is one of the most innovative ideas in the history of computing.

For Lanier, the accusation seems based on the assumption that creativity is the product of gifted individuals, and can only be diluted or lost in a collective. And it is true that, at times, politics and personalities may interfere with the acceptance of new features in a free software project, as the struggle to get Reiser4 into the Linux kernel shows.

Yet if you frequent any project's mailing list, you'll know that the usual reception of a brilliant new idea is unrestrained glee. For instance, last month, when the LTSP project announced it now had a way to run applications on the local machines on a thin-client network, not a discouraging word was to be heard. Far from restraining innovation, free software projects generally act as its incubator, critiquing and refining it more quickly than any single person possibly could.

You wouldn't say that editorial corrections are an enemy of creativity in writers. Many writers actually acknowledge, at least in private, that they need the editorial process to correct flaws they can't see or fix for themselves. So why should free software projects be viewed as any more stifling, when they serve much the same function as an editor?

The changing face of innovation

Of course, not too long ago, the accusation seemed more plausible because free software was a much smaller community than today, and was still playing catch-up with the proprietary world, especially on the desktop. After all, when you're still building basic functionality, you don't have time for innovation, any more than people who are starving have time for gourmet meals. You're too busy with essentials. Yet with the growth of the community and the investment in it by business, in the last few years, the gaps in free software functionality have closed to the point where innovation is not only possible, but thriving.

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Strangely enough, free software has reached this point when much of the rest of the computer industry has almost ceased to innovate. Compared to the heady days of the mid-1990s, when every new software update seemed to include a dazzling array of improvements, in 2007, upgrades hardly raise a yawn. The age of unlimited growth is over, and incremental or even token improvements have become the norm. After all, what was the biggest selling point of the last MS Office? The replacement of menus and toolbars with ribbons, which are simply a combination and rearrangement of their predecessors. For Windows Vista? Claims of increased security, new themes, and a sidebar for a few basic utilities. Such changes have more to do with marketing than any substantial improvement.

Looking at these changes, you can't help but think that the frontier has closed, and the ranchers have replaced the mountain men and explorers. You might even think that office applications, web browsers, and other common software have reached such a state of maturity that expecting major innovations is unrealistic, that the killer app has become a myth of the past.

Continued: The innovations of Free Software

Free software innovations

However, you only have to familiarize yourself with a GNU/Linux desktop to realize how much innovation is still possible. The very idea that you can have a choice of desktops or window managers is revolutionary, although that may be due to the structure of the X Window System more than anything that was planned. Still, whatever the source, on free operating systems, you can choose the desktop that best fits your priorities -- anything from a minimalist, mouse-driven one like ratpoison to a fully-equipped one like GNOME. Should you feel adventuresome, you can explore experiments like SymphonyOS or the GNOME Online Desktop.

Similarly, while free software may not have invented virtual workspaces or tabbed web browsing or built-in PDF creation, it has made such features standard parts of free desktops, rather than obscure extras known only to experts. And while MS Word has had a multiple clipboard for several releases, it took KDE to put one on the desktop where any application could use it.

Far from stifling innovation, free operating systems seem designed to encourage them. It was free software programs such as FireFox and OpenOffice.org that have spread the idea of extensions that give new or alternative functionality to basic programs. For that matter, the idea of the online software repository, which makes installing and removing software is not only a major innovation, but one that encourages users to explore alternatives. Even virtualization, much of whose development took place under free software licenses, can be seen as at least partially as encouraging innovation because it provides a means of working with alternatives.

Probably the clearest sign that free software has become a main source of innovation in the computer world is the direction that the influence is flowing. A decade ago, free software was rushing to copy its proprietary rivals. These days, it's frequently the other way around. It was FireFox's tabs that encouraged Microsoft to reopen Internet Explorer development to add the same feature. Similarly, you know the floating palette for styles that first appeared in MS Word 2003? It's borrowed from OpenOffice.org. The side panel in Vista? A less customizable version of GNOME or KDE panels. The Windows marketplace? An effort -- evidently doomed -- to create a proprietary online repository. Such examples are small, but add them up and you should have no trouble concluding exactly where the new ideas come from these days.

Beyond the technical

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These technical innovations are impressive in themselves. Yet to concentrate on them would be to miss over half the story. Probably the most important innovation in free software is the concept itself -- the idea that you benefit from giving knowledge away, rather than hoarding it.

Working with free software everyday, as I do, it is easy to forget just how radical this idea was when it was introduced, and how radical it remains in many circles. You can still meet people today whose first reaction is that free software is too good to be true, and that there must be a catch somewhere.

And no wonder: in legal and business terms, free software turns the conventions of the proprietary world upside down. It creates new business models, and changes priorities. It brings companies that are rivals together to work on projects that benefit them most. Rather than owning the software, companies become distributors and sellers of expertise, placing themselves in a new relation to customers, who have greater rights and control of their software than ever before.

The implications are so far-ranging that, after a decade of free software-based business, we're still working them out -- and that, more than anything else, shows just how innovative free software is by definition.

When free software was younger, the myth that it couldn't innovate was superficially plausible. It hadn't had the time to do so. But, somewhere in the last five or six years, the myth has become too riddled with holes to be credible. If detractors like Lanier want to continue bad-mouthing free software, they'll have to do some innovation of their own if they want to be convincing. Unlike Dracula, this myth isn't coming back any time soon.

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