A few weeks ago, a friend (Rob) asked me a pertinent question: “How can someone innovate and protect her innovation with open source?”. Initially, I scorned off with a simple “well, you know…”, but this turned out to be a really hard question to answer.
The main idea is that, in the end, every software (and possibly hardware) will end up as open source. Not because it’s beautiful and fluffy, but because it seems to be the natural course of things nowadays. We seem to be moving from profiting on products, to giving them away and profiting on services. If that’s true, are we going to stop innovating at all, and just focus on services? What about the real scientists that move the world forward, are they also going to be flipping burgers?
Open Source as a business model
The reason to use open source is clear, the TCO fallacy is gone and we’re all used to it (especially the lawyers!), that’s all good, but the question is really what (or even when) to open source your own stuff. Some companies do it because they want to sell the value added, or plugins and services. Others do because it’s not their core business or they want to form a community, which would otherwise use the competitors’ open source solution. Whatever the reason is, more and more we seem to be open sourcing software and hardware at an increasing speed, some times it comes off as open source on its first day in the wild.
Open source is a very good cost sharing model. Companies can develop a third-party product, not related to their core areas (where they actually make money), and still claim no responsibility or ownership (which would be costly). For example, the GNU/Linux and FreeBSD operating systems tremendously reduce the cost of any application developer, from embedded systems to big distributed platforms. Most platforms today (Apple’s, Androids, set-top boxes, sat-navs, HPC clusters, web-servers, routers, etc) have them at their core. If each of these products had to develop their own operating system (or even parts of it), it wouldn’t be commercially viable.
Another example is the MeshPotato (in Puerto Rico) box, which uses open software and hardware initially developed by Village Telco (in South Africa). They can cover wide areas providing internet and VoIP telephony over the rugged terrain of Puerto Rico for under $30 a month. If they had to develop their hardware and software (including the OS), it’d cost no less than a few hundred pounds. Examples like that are abundant these days and it’s hard to ignore the benefits of Open Source. Even Microsoft, once the biggest closed-source zealot, who propagated the misinformation that open source was hurting the American Way of Life is now one of the biggest open source contributors on the planet.
So, what is the question then?
If open source saves money everywhere, and promotes incremental innovation that wouldn’t be otherwise possible, how can the original question not have been answered? The key was in the scope.
Rob was referring, in fact, to real chunky innovations. Those that take years to develop, many people working hard with one goal in mind, spending their last penny to possibly profit in the end. The true sense of entrepreneurship. Things that might profit from other open source technologies, but are so hard to make that even so it takes years to produce. Things like new chips, new medicines, real artificial intelligence software and hardware, etc. The open source savings on those projects are marginal. Furthermore, if you spend 10 years developing a software (or hardware) and open source it straight away, how are you ever going to get your investment money back? Unless you charge $500 a month in services to thousands of customers on day one, you won’t see the money back in decades.
The big misunderstanding, I think, it’s that this model no longer applies, so the initial question was invalid to begin with. I explain.
Science and Tecnology
300 years ago, if you were curious about something you could make a name for yourself very easily. You could barely call what they did science. They even called themselves natural philosophers, because what they did was mostly discovering nature and inquiring about its behaviour. Robert Hooke was a natural philosopher and a polymath, he kept dogs with their internals in the open just to see if it’d survive. He’d keep looking at things through a microscope and he named most of the small things we can see today.
Newton, Liebniz, Gauss, Euler and few others have created the whole foundation of modern mathematics. They are known for fundamentally changing how we perceive the universe. It’d be preposterous to assume that there isn’t a person today as bright as they were, but yet, we don’t see people changing our perception of the universe that often. The last spree was more than a hundred years ago, with Maxwell, Planck and Einstein, but still, they were corrections (albeit fundamental) to the model.
Today, a scientist contents in scratching the surface of a minor field in astrophysics, and he’ll probably get a Nobel for that. But how many of you can name more than 5 Nobel laureates? Did they really change your perception of the universe? Did they invent things such as real artificial intelligence or did they discover a better way of doing politics? Sadly, no. Not because they weren’t as smart as Newton or Leibniz, but because the easy things were already discovered, now we’re in for the hard and incremental science and, like it or not, there’s no way around it.
Today, if you wrapped tin foil around a toilet paper tube and played music with it, people would, at best, think you’re cute. Thomas Edison did that and was called a Wizard. Nokia was trying to build a smartphone, but they were trying to make it perfect. Steve Jobs made is almost useless, people loved it, and he’s now considered a genius. If you try to produce a bad phone today, people will laugh at you, not think you’re cute, so things are getting harder for the careless innovators, and that’s the crucial point. Careless and accidental innovation is not possible on any field that has been exploited long enough.
Innovation and Business
Innovation is like business, you only profit if there is a market that hasn’t been taken. If you try to invent a new PC, you will fail. But if you produce a computer that has a niche that has never been exploited (even if it’s a known market, like in the Nokia’s smartphone case), you’re in for the money. If you want to build the next AI software, and it marginally works, you can make a lot of money, whether you open source your software or not. Since people will copy (copyright and patent laws are not the same in every country), your profit will diminish with time, proportional to the novelty and the difficulty in copying.
Rob’s point went further, “This isn’t just a matter of what people can or can’t do, is what people should or should not do”. Meaning, shouldn’t we aim for a world where people don’t copy other people’s ideas as a principle, instead of accepting the fact that people copy? My answer is a strong and sounding: NO! For the love of all that’s good, NO!
The first reason is simply because that’s not the world we live in and it will not be as long as humanity remains human. There is no point in creating laws that do not apply to the human race, though it seems that people get away with that very easy these days.
The second point is that it breaks our society. An example: try to get into a bank and ask for investment on a project that will take 10 years to complete (at the cost of $10M) and the return will come during the 70 years that follows it (at a profit of $100’sM a year). The manager will laugh at you and call security. This is, however, the time it takes (today) for copyright in Hollywood to expire (the infamous Mickey Mouse effect), and the kind of money they deal with.
Imagine that a car manufacturer develops a much safer way of building cars, say magical air bags. This company will be able to charge a premium, not just because of the development costs, but also for its unique position in the market. With time, it’ll save more lives that any other car and governments will want that to be standard. But no other company can apply that to their cars, or at least not without paying a huge premium to the original developer. In the end, cars will be much more expensive in general, and we end up paying the price.
Imagine if there were patents for the telephone, or the TV or cars (I mean, the concept of a car) or “talking to another person over the phone”, or “reminding to call your parents once in a while”. It may look silly, but this is better than most patent descriptions! Most of the cost to the consumer would be patents to people that no longer innovate! Did you know that Microsoft makes more money with Android phones than Google? Their contributions to the platform? Nothing. This was an agreement over dubious and silly patents that most companies accepted as opposed to being sued for billions of dollars.
In my opinion, we can’t just live in the 16th century with 21st century technology. You can’t expect to be famous or profit by building an in-house piece of junk or by spotting a new planet. Open source has nothing to do with it. The problem is not what you do with your code, but how you approach the market.
I don’t want to profit at the expense of others, I don’t want to protect my stupid idea that anyone else could have had (or probably already had, but thought it was silly), just because I was smart enough to market it. Difficult technology is difficult (duh), and it’s not up to a team of experts to create it and market it to make money. Science and technology will advance from now on on a steady, baby-steps way, and the tendency is for this pace to get even slower and smaller.
Another important conclusion for me is that, I’d rather live in a world where I cannot profit horrendously from a silly idea just because I’ve patented it than have monopolies like pharma/banking/tobacco/oil/media controlling our governments, or more than directly, our lives. I think that the fact that we copy and destroy property is the most liberating fact of humanity. It’s the Robin Hood of modern societies, making sure that, one way or another, the filthy rich won’t continue getting richer. Explosive growth, monopolies, cartels, free trade and protection of property are core values that I’d rather see dead as a parrot.
In a nutshell, open source does not hinder innovation, protection of property does.