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Freedom To Innovate

Week of April 10, 2004

'Freedom to innovate...'

Hearing those words emanate from the twisted lips of the Redmond High Command is enough to make anyone's skin crawl. Time and again as Microsoft found their backs to the wall, they've defended their corporate practices with that phrase. While we all know by now it's never been a question of innovation - more like stealing, lying, swindling, cajoling, market bullying, and manipulation.

The open source movement have never been threatened with a court order limiting their freedom to innovate. And yet open source development, almost by definition, will eternally be anything but innovation.

Linux is Unix rewritten; OpenOffice is Microsoft Office rewritten; open source seeks out the standards and adheres to them.

2004 has been proclaimed the year of 'LotD' - Linux on the Desktop - and yet if we by year's end see Linux increase its market share by a single percentage point, heads everywhere will nod in satisfaction - 'we told you so'.

But this is but a glacier - slow moving, with no hope of momentum. Certainly not the avalanche of which Charlie Demerjian wrote. And the key to it all may be the lack of a single killer app not found on any other platform.

BeOS was innovative in its day; its source was rather closed. NeXTSTEP was certainly innovative, and its source is still closed. There are movements afoot to re-create the BeOS of old, as well as the NeXTSTEP of old, but these are not innovations. They're very much the same thing as Linux.

At best these developers will succeed in creating a product that is far more stable than the original; but by its very nature, open source will not innovate. It will emulate; it will even try to improve; but no more.

If anyone in open source were to come upon an idea as revolutionary as those found in BeOS or NeXTSTEP, count on them wanting to protect their IP rights. Count on them not wanting to release code to the public. If they're the only ones who can create the innovation, they will surely want to keep it that way.

Ordinary end users don't care about stability or security. If they did, we'd have seen the migration to Unix long ago.

For while it is true that the majority of users don't know that operating systems are not supposed to need a Ctrl+Alt+Delete every half hour, they're not anymore irritated by this encumbrance than for the time it takes to reboot, reconnect, and get back in that chat room and fire up the ICQ, YIM, AIM, MSN IM, IRC, and Kazaa clients.

In fact they might really like the 'schoolyard' mentality of the 'Windows Internet' as they know it: a place where they can really let go and behave like 'ANIMALS'. Telling them there are no significant exploits or resource hogs on alternative platforms is simply not appealing enough.

Were open source to have killer apps not found elsewhere, people might migrate.

The same goes for the corporate office: Microsoft are good at holding hands with their corporate clients. Things are bad, long ago more than bordered on the dismal, but what the heck - every so often they get the living daylights kicked out of them, and then things go back to normal again. And the longer it goes on, the more immune they become.

Certain organisations have opted out, but most will not do so until there is a more tangible reason to do so. Until they get bug-eyed by a killer app available on open source platforms alone.

The open source movement have the freedom to innovate. Yet the risk is that any non-trivial innovation will be stolen outright by the forces that be, and the minimal market advantage will be usurped almost immediately - unless the movement dig their trenches and defend their IP.

At which impasse open source might very well be closed.

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