Innovation is easier in open-source software

Introduction

Privative software created by Microsoft a couple of decades ago allowed them to become one of the most successful companies of all the times, however privative software follows a model destined to innovation failure since it does not allow programmers nor software users to contribute to its development. Microsoft does not benefit from hundreds of minds willing to create useful software products for making things easier. In that sense, we claim that privative software limits innovation, one characteristic that open source software projects naturally facilitate.

The open-source  community is creating technically superior products thanks to its model of open and collaborative development. For example, people now think of Wikipedia as a first natural choice for getting information. Moreover, there exist free software whose technical properties are higher than the ones of their proprietary counterparts. Firefox, for example, is widely recognised by software developers as a multi-platform web browser which overcomer Internet Explorer properties. Similarly, the linux kernel can be run on different platforms: from cell phones to servers. So why open-source software is performing better than privative software? This article address this question by saying that open-source software performs better because it facilitates innovation.

Open-source software development facilitates creativity

Opening a product to a full set of creatives is the surest path to product innovation and diversity. The community-centred model of open source software facilitates this opening. In an community-centre model, users create software for users. Users are able to create exactly what they want without requiring a manufacturer to act as their agent. In this model users themselves develop the functionalities they consider necessary (when no one has created that functionality before) and share them so other users can freely use it. This model facilitates developers to innovate just because developers are not limited on what they can do. Moreover, under this model innovation keeps going since innovative functionalities are immediately accepted and adopted. A clear example of this is the Apache Web server project. Initially, the software that evolved into Apache was developed by Rob McCool for the National Center for Supercomputing Applications (NCSA). The source code was uploaded on the Web so other users could use it and further modify and develop it. After some years and many modifications and improvements Apache became the most popular Web server software [2].

In contrast, in a manufactured-centred model, software manufacturers create software for users. Users are tied to the decisions of manufacturers and even though decisions can be guided by user feedback, they are interpreted by the manufacturers probably not as close as to what users do really want. An example of this is Microsoft and some of their products which have been known by the community as poor-quality ones (Windows Me, Internet Explorer 6)[3].

Business with open-source software can not be done without innovation

Open-source software has changed the way of making business. The traditional approach for software commercialisation states that companies should lock in customers in order to lock out competitors[1]. In privative software projects, innovation is eventually bounded since companies care about preserving the line of design of their products. Open-source, in contrast, is more dynamic. In these kind of projects the superiority does not come from locking in customers but from understanding the fast-moving user needs and use that knowledge for creating better and more innovate solutions. Therefore, innovation comes naturally from the need for proposing new solutions for continuously changing problems without the need of being tied to any company guideline.

To exemplify this point, lets consider the success participation of Android on the mobile market. Even though Google came into the mobile war even after Apple and Blackberry did, Android was positioned rapidly as one of the leaders. We claim that part of Google’s success is given by the dynamic nature of user needs and how open-software fits this characteristic. Android is built on top of widely-used open-source initiatives (Linux kernel, Java), so it is based on fully functional internal blocks and therefore the focus of Google was on making Android better rather than making Android work. Now Android has ended up in products like TVs, watches and videogames. The opposite happened with Microsoft and its Windows Phone. In this case Microsoft software was not flexible enough for coping with something novel for users. They basically ported what Apple or Android already had for its own platform.

Open-source software allows innovations at all levels

From the operating system to the application layer, open-source software can be changed to meet our needs. A company does not have to wait for other’s when a bug has been found on the software. Instead by using open-source software, the company can fix the problem and further modify and adjust the code to its needs. Changes can be made on all layers and innovation can happen on all them.

Conclusion

I have given three answers of why innovation is easier on open-source software systems compared to private ones. Lets consider open-source software as a building block. Under this analogy, we stated that innovation comes 1) from the ideas of a bunch of creative minds of the open-source community who creates new building blocks, 2) the flexibility of creating new building blocks from existing ones and 3) the capability of modifying them to meet our specific needs.

References

[1] Google Official blog. The meaning of open. http://googleblog.blogspot.co.uk/2009/12/meaning-of-open.html. [Accessed on March 11, 2014].

[2] The Apache Software Foundation. About the Apache HTTP Server Project. http://httpd.apache.org/ABOUT_APACHE.html. [Accessed on March 11, 2014].

[3] PCWorld. The 25 Worst Tech Products of All Time. http://www.pcworld.com/article/125772/worst_products_ever.html. [Accessed on March 11, 2014].