Dr. R. Keith Sawyer thinks that open source is not innovative. Most of the argument revolves around the point that most of the open source products are a copy of existing programs.
It is a good article, it provides a perspective, however I see two problems in there.
I am not sure I understood what Dr. Keith meant by open source and innovative. When referred to, open source implies the methodology used to build and release, not the product itself. For innovation, I think Andrew Wulf provides a definition that we can consider. Here is what I think innovation is.
I think the concept of giving away the source along with the product, during the reign of proprietary moguls, is one of the best innovations we have had. If you think otherwise, do hear me out for some more time. It changed the way software development was being done and it connected the software developers and the users directly. A lot of times innovations come out of unintended usage, which the users are best at. And a lot of times innovations come out of a lot of brains thinking independently, and then discussing together to solve a problem. I do not see a better platform than the what open source provides for this. So much so that the open source model is being adopted for large-scale scientific problem solving. In fact, the open source model has gone far beyond the software boundary.
Also, the open source methodology has innovatively solved the problem of vendor lock-in by putting the user in the control, not only for usage but for evolving the product.
Regarding the products developed using open source, a fair weight falls on the idea itself. A product, because it is based on an existing idea or theory, is not innovative seems too strained. Which aspect is innovative completely depends on that case. Here are some of the open source products I think are innovative:
- Linux. Yes, in spite of being based on an existing operating system, it has changed the way an operating system is composed. It has provided for so many distributions as options and also freedom for people to create their own. I think this is innovative, and helps the user tremendously.
- Mozilla Firefox. This product has changed the way a user can use the browser. Of course the idea of plugins was always there, but Firefox has made it so easy that the addons have contributed heavily to change the browsing experience. In fact it has even promoted the browser as an application integration platform. Pretty innovative!
- OpenOffice. In spite of being just another office suite, OpenOffice is unique in what you can do with it. Like Firefox, a host of extensions around this product can completely transform it.
- Ruby On Rails. This open source web framework has rapidly changed the web development scene. The community around this framework has increased the speed in which it is addressing more and more aspects of web development.
Pardon me for including a pure developer tool like RoR in this list. I want to stress on a fact that the open source movement has impacted the software developers so much that the impact is reaching out to the end users through various benefits. The Content Management System space is another example. I would even cite the likes of Wikipedia, Python and Apache Lucene but that will just keep elongating this post.
Open source has its own share problems, even some critical ones. Just like every system, every approach and every methodology has pros and cons. But the one mentioned by Dr. Keith is definitely not in there.