Closed-source software is the source of innovation?

Geoff cites an article by Jaron Lanier arguing that closed-source software is the source of innovation, that open source software is only polishing copies. The gist of the argument is there:

Why are so many of the more sophisticated examples of code in the online world—like the page-rank algorithms in the top search engines or like Adobe’s Flash—the results of proprietary development? Why did the adored iPhone come out of what many regard as the most closed, tyrannically managed software-development shop on Earth? An honest empiricist must conclude that while the open approach has been able to create lovely, polished copies, it hasn’t been so good at creating notable originals. Even though the open-source movement has a stinging countercultural rhetoric, it has in practice been a conservative force.

First of all, Page Rank was not designed in a proprietary-software environment. It was designed at Stanford. And Google is not exactly a proprietary-software shop. They use Linux, Python and plenty of open source software. They also give back a lot to the open source communities.

Apple is hot with innovations? Maybe, but before they took a sharp turn back toward BSD and built on open source software, they were going to hell with their proprietary operating system. Several key Apple components are open source software, including their Web browser engine.

Wikipedia? Built on MediaWiki, MySQL, PHP, MemCached. YouTube? Built on MySQL, Python, and MemCached.

There is plenty of innovation going on in the open source world. It just does not come in a box with a CD-ROM. Open source software is the greatest innovation enabler in our history.

5 thoughts on “Closed-source software is the source of innovation?”

  1. I think I agree with the article because I find it unlikely that such products would exist if everything was done in the open-source model. (However, I do agree that the citing of Page Rank wasn’t the best choice.)

    What I am not saying (and is often misconstrued in discussions I have) is that closed-source is “better” or that open-source is “worse”. I don’t think you get the same kind of innovation in the two worlds. I can’t see the open-source community expending the effort to make something like the iLife suite (although I think it is capable) whereas I see no reason why Apple would start something like Wikipedia.

    (Something tells me there is an economic argument here, but I don’t know enough about economics to make it…)

  2. There is a subtle difference between building *on top* of open source software and building something that is open source itself.

    Google does not make their ranking algorithm open source. What they give back are tiny library pieces that give no competitive advantage to any of the competitors. Same thing for Apple. And PageRank needed a lot of tweaking before reaching the state of being a competitive advantage. The original description of PageRank left many tuning issues unanswered.

    Wikipedia is built on top of open source and is open source itself in terms of its content. IMDb is also open source in this respect. But the model there is different. Users will not migrate to another website that hosts the same information.

  3. There is a subtle difference between building *on top* of open source software and building something that is open source itself.

    Yes.

    Google does not make their ranking algorithm open source. What they give back are tiny library pieces that give no competitive advantage to any of the competitors. Same thing for Apple. And PageRank needed a lot of tweaking before reaching the state of being a competitive advantage. The original description of PageRank left many tuning issues unanswered.

    Is tweaking a ranking algorithm considered a highly innovative task? Beside, it seems that PageRank is mostly a marketing ploy and that counting the in-degree of the nodes is just as good (see earlier posts on my blog)… so PageRank is probably not innovative at all.

    What are the most innovative computer languages/web development toolkits these days? I’d have to say that Python/django, Ruby/JRuby/Rail, … all of these things should be on your radar. They are all open source. What’s the closed source alternatives… C#, .NET? Are those “highly innovative” ventures in comparison? I think not.

    As for Apple, their Web browser engine is hardly “a tiny library”. Webkit is a significant venture.

    http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Webkit

    According to Apple, Safari is the fastest web browser in the world (http://www.apple.com/safari/). This “innovation” is certainly related to Webkit. Note that Webkit is based on khtml, a KDE/Linus open source initiative.

    The latest file format used by Apple is ZFS, a highly innovative file format developed by Sun for Open Solaris under an open source license:

    http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Zfs

    Wikipedia is built on top of open source and is open source itself in terms of its content. IMDb is also open source in this respect. But the model there is different. Users will not migrate to another website that hosts the same information.

    In my opinion, Wikipedia remains the most innovative and significant IT project of the last 20 years, and it is entirely open.

  4. Daniel,
    Lanier would probably say that Wikipedia is innovating for evil 😉 (look for “digital maoism” for his anti-Wikipedia rants).
    Innovation is hardly the law in the software world (see Microsoft). Most innovation in OSS happens in software infra-structure which is not much visible: Ruby on Rails, Xen, Reiser4, CouchDb, etc. If you allow for implementation of new ideas, lots of innovative software floats around in the form of open-source matlab toolboxes.
    I think his non-analogy between software and science is more dangerous, though. If one thing, OSS made software development *more* like science (closed software is never published, for instance).
    I would prefer that science does not look into software development for ideas, the two activities being very different in goals, motivations and processes, in my opinion. But I believe the movement for more openness in science is a definitive one (open access, open datasets, demand for reproducibility by journals). Feel free to draw any conclusions whether the simultaneous raise of OSS is just a coincidence or the signal of some bigger trend.

  5. The iPhone’s “innovative UI” is not all that new either. Bill Buxton worked on multi-touch interaction since 1984. If I recall correctly, they couldn’t get any funding for research in music interfaces anymore, so just used other names for what they wanted to do, such as “multi-touch” for drumming 🙂

    I think academic research plays an important role in either open or closed source software innovation. It might be in a modified form (e.g. the invention of the GUI) or not even a direct influence, but it still matters in my opinion.

    The XGL Wobbly Windows that were hot on Linux systems a while ago, are very comparable with the examples given in Animating direct manipulation interfaces by Thomas and Calder at UIST ’88.

    In my opinion what stimulates innovation in closed source software, is not the fact that it’s closed, but the underlying motivation. It needs to be marketable and should work for your your clients. I am not saying that open source software is not usable, but if you mess up, the consequences are less severe. Compare e.g. a system update that causes sound to stop working on Ubuntu vs on the iPhone. Many Ubuntu users would fix it themselves, others might give up Ubuntu or complain about it. While Ubuntu might lose face, the community won’t be immediately impacted in terms of sales. Ubuntu might not be the best example though, since there is a company backing it (Canonical). However, they only support the LTS releases as far as I know.

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