It happened again this week. While reading one of the online open-source news services, I came across an article containing the prognostications of an industry guru.
Among his statements was the now familiar claim that open source simply cannot innovate. It takes a focused, well-funded organisation to deliver significant innovation, claimed the IT guru.
At first glance, someone might think this analysis is correct. After all, a cursory glance at the history of Linux reveals an extensive effort to create features and interfaces found in other operating systems. Taken at face value, it appears that open source is about imitation, not innovation.
Although it is true that much of the history of open-source development has been marked by the effort to create features found in other platforms, this has far more to do with the time line than the Linux community's ability to innovate. As with any new venture launched into a field with many established competitors, Linux needed to first reach the baseline established by the competition before focusing entirely on innovation. In the operating system market, reaching that baseline is no small task, but as a recent DH Brown report clearly shows, Linux has become quite technically competitive with other Unix-like operating systems.
But innovation has been accompanying the progress of open source in recent years. Take, for example, the predominant desktop systems KDE and Gnome. These two competing desktop systems bring feature-rich, easy-to-use interfaces into the hands of users. Even many old-school Unix vendors are now including KDE and Gnome in their offerings, because these desktops are more user-friendly than prior Unix desktops (such as CDE).
Don't make the mistake of thinking that these are mere imitations of a Microsoft Windows GUI. I know nontechnical users who think Windows is difficult to use compared to KDE. Personally, I don't know how I could survive without multiple virtual desktops -- a feature that allows the user to open many different applications, combining them into their own desktops, so that a single click can bring you to all the windows needed to do data entry, telephone support, or word processing. No time is wasted creating Windows icons or flipping through a dozen overlapping applications.
And let us not forget about the internet. While many of the big names in the software industry were still wondering what to do with the web, open-source projects such as Apache, Sendmail, and BIND were becoming the glue that would hold the web together. Scripting languages such as Perl, PHP, and Python power much of the dynamic web page production in the world. Oh, and if you are tired of IIS being hacked, try Apache under OpenBSD for a much more secure web presence.
Innovation involves creating new types of solutions to problems. Open source does just that, even if there is no flurry of press releases or marketing events to announce the fact.
Maybe those complaining about a lack of innovation in open source need to do some innovation of their own. They could start by devising a new excuse not to use open-source solutions. The "no innovation" line is getting rather old.
Pavlicek is an independent open-source consultant. Send email to Russell Pavlicek.