The price of innovation

· by Steve · Read in about 5 min · (989 Words)

I often wish I could post more here about the work I do. It’s an unfortunate fact of the industry I work in that ‘innovation’ often also means ‘secrecy’, and such things generally go against my innate nature - I like to think of myself as a sharer of knowledge, an active participant in a global intellectual cauldron that spawned the open source development approach, among other things. When I find something out, I generally want to tell people - I want to show it to them, and have them pick it apart and give it back to me with a bunch of Post-It notes attached telling me all the things I did wrong and how I could make it better. Then, I want to rinse and repeat that until together we’ve made something awesome that we all can use to our respective benefit, and that none of us could have created alone. It’s a nice principle, and it’s one that underpins every open source project out there.

Unfortunately, there are frequent instances where that isn’t possible, usually because the work is deemed to be valuable IP that shouldn’t be shared with others. That’s fair enough - it’s being paid for after all and the company funding it should get to choose what’s open for scrutiny and what’s not. I personally think that in a lot of cases, there could be significant benefits to the company in question to allow public sharing of the work, since there are a lot of smart people out there who always come back with improvements to pretty much anything you publish, so the return could be very valuable compared to relying on expensive internal development alone. However, I’m the first to admit that I haven’t exactly gotten rich on my open principles so far - on the contrary, the majority of the work which keeps me in coffee and snacks is of the traditional proprietary model. I just can’t help thinking about just how much each of us is reinventing and recreating in this model that each company considers its ‘unique IP’ but in fact if offset against the amount that could be done in collaboration, would pale in comparison.

Now, I’m also not naive - IT companies rely on IP for their balance sheets. The traditional answer to creating value out of open processes is to charge for services rather than products, but really that only works at scale if you’re dealing with mainstream business software - office servers, CRM, ‘insurance policy’ support agreements, that kind of thing. Big business is willing to pay for services it doesn’t need, or hopes not to use. Out at the fringes, and I consider 3D to be there in the grand scheme of things, there’s a lot of people who are more interested in products than services; they just need something that does ‘X’ really well, and don’t need a support contract or a complicated service leasing model. So, I think there are plenty of areas where a proprietary software model will continue to be required to keep people in jobs, and as such not everything can be open. However, I also think that there’s a lot more scope for core services to be provided by open source solutions, and perhaps more importantly for the companies using them to more fully embrace the open model for what it is, as an evolving opportunity for advancement  - not just a resource to use as-is, and to take the minimum action to comply with the license. Proprietary products can and do differentiate themselves via user experience, smart automation, and other combinatory advances, without precluding open collaboration at a deeper level. Some companies do subscribe to this, as is evidenced by the participation of their employees in our OGRE forums, but an awful lot do not.

The fact is that collaboration is the number one reason why an open source project exists and is mature enough to use anyway, so if a company chooses it, it’s acknowledging that ‘the system works’. I’m going to assume most of these companies don’t want that base to stand still, even if it is already good for their purposes. By embracing the open model that created it, it’s possible to take that base platform to the next level in partnership with others, quicker than could be done with internal development alone. Sure, competitors will get access to that technology too, but I rarely see any products that genuinely rely on technology alone - mostly it’s clever combinations of raw tech. But there’s also this - would they actually have gotten more done by keeping it all to themselves? Or have competitors just been inventing the same stuff in their own labs too anyway, levelling the playing field? How about if by spending that effort in the open, it was magnified by a factor of 5 through collaboration with others? They’d be in the same position relative to their competitors, but everyone is 5x further along than if each person is driving their own pump. Assuming that possibilities for high-level differentiation are proportional to the sophistication of the back-end plumbing, aren’t they actually better off from doing some of their work in the open instead?

I have a vested interest in this, of course. Perhaps through explicit recognition of the value of collaborative open projects as a base for higher-level innovation, and greater active participation in them by commercial organisations, more open source projects outside the traditional ‘business plumbing’ arenas might get  funding just to do what they do, instead of their members having to make a living doing other things. In a word, it would be wonderful to be able to be truer to our core principles and pay our bills at the same time, and I do think there’s an argument that says it isn’t entirely incompatible with traditional commercial thinking.

Am I nuts? Maybe. But I hope I got you thinking