[svlug] open source mimicking existing software?

Karsten M. Self kmself at ix.netcom.com
Thu Mar 3 18:14:13 PST 2005

on Tue, Mar 01, 2005 at 05:03:24PM -0800, Sameer Verma (sverma at sfsu.edu) wrote:
> Here's a question that came up in one of our MBA courses:
> "Is open source software always something that mimics an existing software?"
> I haven't given it any exhaustive thought...anyone have any examples of 
> the contrary?

Repurposing from an earlier post to debian-user:

    on Fri, Jan 14, 2005 at 12:40:15AM -0800, ken keanon (kenkeanon at yahoo.com) wrote:

    > Let's swing to the higher end of the spectrum, that of innovation.
    > One thing that can be safely said about the 'free' software world
    > is that it has not led in innovation. 

    Chimera:  Innovation is *hard*.  Neither proprietary nor free
    software development supports it well.

    What Free Software *does* do is provide an environment in which
    alternatives can thrive, compete, and the best be selected from
    among them.  In the same way that evolution isn't a process which
    describes _how_ variance in individuals comes to be, but how such
    variants are promoted, relative to one another, the open source
    development model provides a competitive environment favoring better

    For a surprisingly relevant explanation of this process, read Jarred
    Diamond's _Guns, Germs, and Steel_.

    > OS? There was UNIX before Linux.

    Guess what:  there are Free Software implementations of:

      - Unix (GNU/Linux, *BSD, Hurd)
      - legacy MS Windows (ReactOS)
      - BeOS (Um, somewhere)
      - DOS (FreeDOS)

    What you mostly hear about, though, is GNU/Linux.  Why?  Well, it
    works, it's usable, it's stable, it's extensible.  There's a large
    base of existing software that can run on it (or be made to run

    And:  Unix was originally developed under conditions strongly
    similar to what is today called Free Software or Open Source.  For a
    number of reasons, among them that the idea of copyrighting software
    hadn't been established yet (that happened in 1976), and AT&T was
    prohibited by antitrust settlement conditions from selling computer
    operating systems.  The result:  a Unix-style OS is strongly suited
    to the open source development process.

    > Firefox? Apache? Openoffice? All these have commecially innovated
    > counteparts that existed before them. 

    First:  how you fund and initiate a project has little bearing on
    its ultimate relationship vis-a-vis free vs. proprietary.  Back to
    the evolution analog:  project initiation is the incubation stage.
    For novel projects (or species) what you want is a relatively
    contained, nurturing environment.  Typical examples are academic
    projects, organizationally-funded projects (e.g.:  NSF, NCSA, CERN),
    or internal corporate development (Perl).  And sometimes, opened
    proprietary projects (OpenOffice).

    Incidentally, of the projects you list:

      - Firefox was an independent effort based on Mozilla, which was a
        from-scratch rewrite of Netscape's browser, which was based on
        the original Mosaic browser, itself an academic research project
        at the University of Illinois National Center for Supercomputing

      - Apache "a patchy webserver" was based on NCSA, but evolved
        massively.  Netcraft still tracks NCSA's browser share.  It's
        minuscule.  The NCSA project itself was somewhat collaborative,
        dating from the dawn of the modern Free Software era.

      - Openoffice is the one project which emerged from a proprietary
        product.  Incidentally, it's taken a lot of heat on the basis of
        this origin.  The codebase is huge and byzantine.  The
        application, previously monolithic, has been largely (though not
        wholly) modularized.  It's a very strong example to my mind of
        why freeing proprietary software is hard (the Netscape example
        is another).  Free software and proprietary development models
        tend to be very different, with strong impacts on architecture.

    > Why? Its in the nature of things and the way they are done.
    > Software is a complex entity. Software innovation requires
    > individual discipline and teamwork. It can't be left to a group of
    > unpaid volunteers who  want to do things in their own free way and
    > their own free time.

    Tell you what:  Name the ten biggest software innovations of the
    past 30 years, and where they came from.

Note:  No such list was proffered.  Requests still stands, and is
repeated here.

    > For the  'free' software movement to leap-frog the 'commercial'
    > world, it has to come up with an innovation which has a
    > competitive advantage over its 'commercial'  competitor. 

    Well (starred items predate free software but follow similar

      - The free software development model itself
      - The World Wide Web *
      - The Internet *
      - Unix *
      - Rsync
      - Bittorrent
      - A Package Tool (apt), Debian's package management system

Don Marti's reference to sweetcode.org is a very useful additional

    Truth is, though, that most software is pretty fundamental, and
    changes are evolutionary, not revolutionary.   There's a lot of
    stuff which in aggregate is pretty cool.  Knoppix, say.  But it's
    not, itself, a wild innovation.  It's an assemblage of things which
    themselves may or may not be revolutionary:

      - CDROM
      - Bootable CDROM
      - Loopback filesystem
      - Compressed filesystem
      - Package management
      - Hardware autodetection
      - An available software base

    The result, though, is pretty damned impressive:  1200+ software
    packages, totalling > 1 GiB, on 750 MiB of storage, updated every
    few weeks, booting in a couple of minutes on a wide range of
    hardware to a usable desktop / technical system, suitable for both
    the total n00b and domain experts.

    While there are no *technical* reasons why such a project isn't
    possible (if not particularly easy) under legacy MS Windows, I note
    a number of the reasons why social and licensing imperatives get in
    the way, and strongly limit the utility of such tools as do exist:


    > How long do we have to wait for that?

    By my count, negative 36 years.


Karsten M. Self <kmself at ix.netcom.com>        http://kmself.home.netcom.com/
 What Part of "Gestalt" don't you understand?
  Information is not power after all: Old-fashioned power is power. If you
  aren't big industry or government, you have very little power. Once they've
  hacked the electronic voting system, you'll have no power at all.
  - Robert X. Cringely
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