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Driving a Stake Through 'Free Software Can't Innovate' - page 2

Dracula Won't Buzz Off

  • March 5, 2009
  • 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.

Beyond the technical

These technical innovations are impressive in themselves. Yet to concentrate on them would be to miss over half the story. Probably the most important innovation in free software is the concept itself -- the idea that you benefit from giving knowledge away, rather than hoarding it.

Working with free software everyday, as I do, it is easy to forget just how radical this idea was when it was introduced, and how radical it remains in many circles. You can still meet people today whose first reaction is that free software is too good to be true, and that there must be a catch somewhere.

And no wonder: in legal and business terms, free software turns the conventions of the proprietary world upside down. It creates new business models, and changes priorities. It brings companies that are rivals together to work on projects that benefit them most. Rather than owning the software, companies become distributors and sellers of expertise, placing themselves in a new relation to customers, who have greater rights and control of their software than ever before.

The implications are so far-ranging that, after a decade of free software-based business, we're still working them out -- and that, more than anything else, shows just how innovative free software is by definition.

When free software was younger, the myth that it couldn't innovate was superficially plausible. It hadn't had the time to do so. But, somewhere in the last five or six years, the myth has become too riddled with holes to be credible. If detractors like Lanier want to continue bad-mouthing free software, they'll have to do some innovation of their own if they want to be convincing. Unlike Dracula, this myth isn't coming back any time soon.

Article courtesy of Datamation, originally published December 4, 2007

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