Originally Published: Monday, 23 August 1999 Author: Matt Michie
Published to: featured_articles/Featured Articles Page: 1/1 - [Printable]

The Farce of Innovation

Innovation. We've all been trained to believe that the computer industry is re-inventing itself on a daily basis. Without looking too deeply this seems to be true. After all, computers are growing cheaper, while getting faster. While this may be true of the hardware, it is NOT true of the software....

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Innovation. We've all been trained to believe that the computer industry is re-inventing itself on a daily basis. Without looking too deeply this seems to be true. After all, computers are growing cheaper, while getting faster. While this may be true of the hardware, it is NOT true of the software.

I'm going to examine why software hasn't been very innovative and why free software/open source software may be able to change some of this.

Even though commercial software vendors would like you to believe each upgrade you buy is changing the face of computing, the truth is that Computer Science is usually not revolutionary in scope. With few exceptions, most computer programs build upon the ideas or the work of other programs. For instance, the concept of the Graphical User Interface (GUI) has been around at least since the Xerox Alto in 1972! Everything that has followed, has simply been incremental improvements on the basic design idea of Windows, Icons, Menus and Pointers (WIMP).

Let's look at some of the major innovations in software in recent times. We'll start out in October 1979, where a piece of software changed the way business viewed personal computers forever. At the time, Visicalc, the first computer spreadsheet was a completely new metaphor for manipulating data. However, programs such as Microsoft Excel still use this 20-year-old metaphor. Is that innovation or incremental improvement?

Unix (which Linux can trace its lineage to) was born in 1969. Windows NT can trace its heritage to VMS which came not much later than Unix. The World Wide Web has some roots in Xanadu, a similar concept from the 60's.

Word processors are not much more than a slightly more advanced typewriter. What You See Is What You Get (WYSIWYG), is far less useful than What You Get Is What You Meant (WYGIWYM). Haven't heard of WYGIWYM? This wonderful breakaway from the typewriter is a part of the LyX document processor. The authors describe it as:

LyX is a free program that provides a more modern approach of writing documents with a computer. Compared to common word processors, LyX increases productivity, since the job of typesetting is done mostly by the computer, not the author.

One can see from these examples, that most software is built on the foundations of a few truly revolutionary ideas. All the buzz you hear from the traditional closed-source software companies is slick marketing and not hard facts.

Recently, I was sitting cramped in a jetliner, flying along peacefully at 25,000 feet. Having nothing better to do for a couple of hours I was staring out the window at the ground below. It wasn't long before my mind began to wander. The first powered flight of an aircraft took place in December of 1903, by July of 1969, 63 years later mankind had flown to the moon, and here I was flying across the country as a routine matter.

In 1943, one of the first programmable computers came into use, 55 years later we have Microsoft Windows 98. Doesn't seem like quite the innovation anymore does it?

If you can accept the premise that most software improvement is incremental, it doesn't take much to see that closed source software is detrimental to innovation. A coder who is forced to reinvent basic processes each time a new program is written is not being productive. On the other hand, if a programmer is using the open source metaphor, he or she simply reuses the code that is already there and moves on to the new stuff. Commercial companies would have you believe their Applications Program Interface (API) and Object-Oriented programming techniques will help you overcome the closed source reuse problem. However, I doubt you'll find many programmers that would tell you that they wouldn't love to have the option of digging through all of the source code.

Linux and other open source operating systems are poised to overtake commercial offerings. It has taken many years to implement the building blocks of a completely free software system. The GNU project has been working since the mid 80's on this, and it wasn't until 1991 when the Linux kernel was released that a completely free system could be used. It has taken several more years for the community to implement some of the functionality of integrated GUI's with the GNOME and KDE projects. Now we are running neck to neck with commercial software offerings. It won't be long before we see a open source software pull ahead in terms of innovation.

Closed source companies will have to rely on their internal developers to fuel improvements in their software. They will be forced to re-implement ideas and programs that the free software community won't be wasting their time on anymore. Many Computer Science curriculums will be teaching (if they aren't already) Linux, GCC, Emacs, VIM, GTK, and not Windows, Visual C++, etc. How are closed source companies going to appeal to someone like me who has cut his teeth on free software and doesn't want to go back to something inferior? How can they compete with programmers that are intrinsically motivated by making software better?

I suspect that we will see more lashing out with Software Patents. Hopefully by then the companies that are jumping on the Linux bandwagon will be able to throw their legal weight around and get rid of these abominations. If not, we may see free software development moving completely to a country that doesn't have such restrictions, thus putting the United States at a disadvantage in the Information Technology field.

To me the future of software is starting to become exciting again. Instead of being held back by closed source companies, users have the power to not only share software, but the advantage of having thousands of the best programmers in the world innovating with new code 8,760 hours a year. The free software community is definitely going to be a thorn in the side of closed source companies for many years to come.

Matt Michie is a Linux Guru wannabe and student living in New Mexico. He loves to get e-mail at mmichie@linux.com and maintains a web site at http://web.nmsu.edu/~mmichie.

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