[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
> 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 *
- 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:
- 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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