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Innovation in Free Software is No Fantasy - page 3

Buffy the FUD-Slayer?

  • December 10, 2007
  • By Bruce Byfield

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.

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