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Editor's Note: Think Tanks in the Age of Linux
Who Needs a Think Tank, When You Have an Army of Developers?
April 24, 2000
It didn't make a lot of headlines over the long Easter weekend, but the decision to close down Interval Research, a think tank funded by Paul Allen with the mandate to create breakthroughs in computing technologies, should be noted by everyone committed to Linux and Open Source technologies.
Interval Research was founded in 1992 by Allen as an all-star research facility. From the beginning it had a world-class pedigree: it was headed by David Liddle, a Xerox PARC veteran who helped create Ethernet, and over time the roster of researchers included such luminaries as Glenn Edens (an engineer who was instrumental in the development of the first GRiD laptop computer and Apple's original LISA personal computer; before that he was affiliated with Xerox PARC), Joy Mountford (a human-interface expert who made her mark at Apple Computer; she's the author of the influential Art of Human-Computer Interface Design), Lee Felsenstein (moderator of the Homebrew Computer Club), and user-interface guru Brenda Laurel.
It was a place where Big Thinkers were expected to create Big Thoughts, especially Big Thoughts that could be spun off into commercial ventures. A December 1999 profile of Interval Research in Wired summed up Allen's basic plan: to perform basic research and do some really technologically cool things, but also to make sure that the results are commercially viable. (Don't bother trying to connect to the Interval Research site: it's already down.) The author of this profile hinted that there was some internal dissent over the course of Interval Research, but in the end was optimistic that Interval Research would rebound and do some really great things.
Despite the roster of heavyweights, Interval Research never really gained the critical mass needed for a think tank to prosper. Several companies were spun off from Interval, but not a one was truly successful. The only commercially viable ideas concerned games, which only proved that scientists shouldn't be involved in creating games: Brenda Laurel's Rocket Moon died a spectacular death in the marketplace, while Redbeard's Pirate Quest from Zowie Intertainment has gotten middling reviews at best. Avio Digital has done a lot of work in creating the MediaWire specification for distributing data over a single wire in home-based networks, but this is hardly an area that is changing the world, and the jury is still out over how successful Avio will be.
So why write about the death of a think tank in a Linux Web site? Because, I think, Interval Research's death is directly related to the changes in the world that have been wrought by Linux and the Open Source world. We're not living in the age of Big Ideas controlled by academcally oriented researchers in an Ivory Tower: we're now living in an age where ideas do matter, but they matter when they're released to the public for general discourse. The folks at Interval Research seemed dismayed that Paul Allen was demanding that there be some sort of viability to the Big Ideas generated there. The viability didn't even necessarily need to be commercial viability; it just needed to be ideas that would make an impact on computing.
Of course, Linux and Open Source technologies have been attacked for not being commercially viable (although I think in the long run Open Source will serve as the blueprint for how the software world will work), but while Interval clearly had no clue about how to create anything that was commercially viable, the folks pushing Linux and Open Source knew from the beginning that exposure to a mass audience would be crucial. The important part is getting a good and usable product out the door.
You don't need to gather a set of Big Thinkers to do great things: the rather motley crew of Linux kernel hackers and developers gave birth to a new way of creating useful and neat technology, and they were assisted in that efforts by literally thousands of programmers joining the fray. Whether contributing code to the KDE Team or refining the essential gcc compiler for the Free Software Foundation, these passionate developers showed that collaboration on a massive scale could outdo anything created under heavily controlled circumstances.
And to that end we're seeing Big Ideas come directly to the marketplace of customers, not saved up for future public consumption. In the end, Interval Research--despite the roster of Big Thinkers with rather impressive accomplishments--died because the marketplace wasn't willing to sit back and let an oligarchy come up with the Next Big Thing. The marketplace (in this instance, the Open Source community) went out and did its own thing, and we're all the better for it.