Is Open Source software better than closed-source software? Is Wikipedia better than Britannica? Is NoSQL better than Oracle and SQL Server? Are blogs better than corporate news services? Do patents favor innovation? Do long and painful funding applications help science? Is learning off Wikipedia and YouTube as good as learning in a classroom? Is duck typing good or bad?
All these questions are closely related to the concept of Innovation without permission: people innovate more when they do not have to ask permission.
Innovation without permission is analogous to Ridiculously Easy Group-Formation, popularized by Clay Shirky, but first proposed by my colleague Sébastien Paquet in 2002. Paquet’s message is that we are pushing the threshold for group creation to an unprecedented low. In 2011, it is hard to disagree with Paquet: entire political movements come online together automatically.
Similarly, we are lowering the barriers to innovation to unprecedented lows:
- Open Source developers are probably no better than closed-source developers, but they typical produce their work without asking permission. Moreover, Open Source has gotten much easier over the years. Starting a project was relatively difficult in the nineties. Then sourceforge came along. Today, we have Github which is even easier. Using Github, people I never heard about, and never approved, submitted patches to some of my code without permission! Fantastic!
- When the era of personal computers arrived, a small team could publish a game, get it distributed through stores and sold to millions of people. Yet, last year, Markus Persson became a millionaire in a month by publishing an unfinished game as a Java applet from his web site (Minecraft). At each step in this process, the barrier to innovation becomes lower. First, you had to ask permission to the stores. Today, you can innovate and just post your work and, apparently, get paid very well for your effort.
- Many of the best-selling titles in the Amazon kindle store come from self-published authors. People write and sell books without asking permission to a publisher! They are also making more money than they used to.
- Wikipedia contributors and editors are no better than Britannica’s authors, but they mostly work without asking permission.
- NoSQL databases often allow developers to add new features without having to convince a DBA to change the database schema.
- Bloggers post without the approval of an editor.
- Duck Typing allows you to use a function that was meant for a different data type without having to ask for a change in the API.
- The barriers in scientific research has come down significantly. You can solve problems, post your solutions online and people might offer you a million dollar. It happened to Perelman. Increasingly, access to the literature is Open Access. Anyone can read the papers on PLoS and even contribute comments.
We can identify some barriers to innovation which are also great opportunities:
- Patents and copyright are first on my list. Much of the copyrighted content is easier to pirate than to license. Unsurprisingly, people do not ask permission and they violate copyright. A possible outcome is that all industries could become like the fashion industry where copyright is largely irrelevant.
- Funding remains a significant barrier to innovation. The Kickstarter model is interesting in this respect.
- While I love web applications such as Google Mail, YouTube and Facebook, they won’t let their users redesign the product. You can post innovative content, but you cannot contribute (much) to the architecture of the application. Twitter is maybe the exception where users redefined Twitter by using tags and retweets, both design elements that were not present in the system initially. I am amazed that nobody has thought of creating a web application letting people program and distribute video games online. (If you implement this idea well and become a millionaire, please send me a check.)