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Driving a Stake Through 'Free Software Can't Innovate'

Dracula Won't Buzz Off

March 5, 2009

Linux Planet Classics. Originally published December 2007, yet the same tired old myths still persist

Like Dracula, the old myth that free software can't innovate keeps returning. Its latest incarnation is in the form of a column by Jaron Lanier in the December issue of Discover Magazine. (The column isn't online yet, but Lanier has disparaged community-based creativity many times, in particular when talking about Wikipedia). But this accusation is one that's overdue for a stake through the heart. Those who have experienced free software projects firsthand know that they depend on innovation and genrally foster it. And although this isn't a highly innovative era for the computer industry as a whole, free software is an exception -- and likely to become more of one as it continues to come into its own. In fact, the very idea of free software is one of the most innovative ideas in the history of computing.

For Lanier, the accusation seems based on the assumption that creativity is the product of gifted individuals, and can only be diluted or lost in a collective. And it is true that, at times, politics and personalities may interfere with the acceptance of new features in a free software project, as the struggle to get Reiser4 into the Linux kernel shows.

Yet if you frequent any project's mailing list, you'll know that the usual reception of a brilliant new idea is unrestrained glee. For instance, last month, when the LTSP project announced it now had a way to run applications on the local machines on a thin-client network, not a discouraging word was to be heard. Far from restraining innovation, free software projects generally act as its incubator, critiquing and refining it more quickly than any single person possibly could.

You wouldn't say that editorial corrections are an enemy of creativity in writers. Many writers actually acknowledge, at least in private, that they need the editorial process to correct flaws they can't see or fix for themselves. So why should free software projects be viewed as any more stifling, when they serve much the same function as an editor?

The changing face of innovation

Of course, not too long ago, the accusation seemed more plausible because free software was a much smaller community than today, and was still playing catch-up with the proprietary world, especially on the desktop. After all, when you're still building basic functionality, you don't have time for innovation, any more than people who are starving have time for gourmet meals. You're too busy with essentials. Yet with the growth of the community and the investment in it by business, in the last few years, the gaps in free software functionality have closed to the point where innovation is not only possible, but thriving.

Strangely enough, free software has reached this point when much of the rest of the computer industry has almost ceased to innovate. Compared to the heady days of the mid-1990s, when every new software update seemed to include a dazzling array of improvements, in 2007, upgrades hardly raise a yawn. The age of unlimited growth is over, and incremental or even token improvements have become the norm. After all, what was the biggest selling point of the last MS Office? The replacement of menus and toolbars with ribbons, which are simply a combination and rearrangement of their predecessors. For Windows Vista? Claims of increased security, new themes, and a sidebar for a few basic utilities. Such changes have more to do with marketing than any substantial improvement.

Looking at these changes, you can't help but think that the frontier has closed, and the ranchers have replaced the mountain men and explorers. You might even think that office applications, web browsers, and other common software have reached such a state of maturity that expecting major innovations is unrealistic, that the killer app has become a myth of the past.

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