Open Source and the Innovator’s Dilemma Revisited

May 10, 2012

If you have been participating in the free and open source movement as long as I have, you know that the foundational arguments for open source development have been made, and the initial skirmishes fought and won. From my own experience as a software developer, anecdotal evidence, and emerging business studies, it’s clear to me that open source software practices are more agile, scalable, cheaper, higher quality, authentic, and responsive to the development of custom enterprise software. Savvy organizations are realizing this, and open source approaches are making their way into everything from research in the computational sciences, government infrastructure (including the U.S. Department of Defense), and technology integration in forward-thinking companies.

Despite these successes, the struggle is far from over. The disruptive nature of the open process is now keenly felt in the mainstream and enterprises are realizing that without plans to accommodate these disruptive processes, they may soon join the company of Tyrannosaurs Rex. Thus, there is an existential struggle underway between companies that want to sell off-the-shelf solutions, and those that want to collaborate with and serve their customers to create custom solutions. Or stated another way, companies that want to control the customer experience are contending with those that want to enable the customer experience.

As a technology leader in an open source company, I find this state of affairs to be thrilling. I often think back to when I read The Innovator’s Dilemma where the dynamics of disruption are so clearly laid out. What is often forgotten about this book is that not only did it describe disruptions due to new product introductions, but disruptions due to process changes as well. For example, the process change from variety retail to discount retail wiped out Woolworth and eventually brought on the dominance of WalMart.

Will open source do to closed source software what discount retailing did to Woolworth? I doubt it, as Apple Computer has shown that a well-crafted and controlled user experience can be profoundly satisfying (and profitable). On the other hand, even the notoriously closed and controlling Apple has had to “open” itself by enabling the hundreds of thousands of non-Apple apps, and by building on critical open source projects, such as BSD and WebKit/KHTML, to reinvent Apple OS X. So even though open may not dominate outright, the enabling expectations in the user community for openness, freedom, customization, and reasonable pricing will continue to exert significant pressure on vendors who wish to control the customer experience.

I find it interestingly ironic that it is reported that one of Steve Job’s favorite books was The Innovator’s Dilemma; I wonder if he ever imagined an open software process being potentially disruptive to his company.

On the other hand, there are areas in which open approaches will clearly dominate, including the development of custom, large-scale software and performing computational R&D to name a couple. The ability to collaboratively create scalable software that meets the needs of an enterprise, is free of intellectual property barriers, and uses agile software processes is an overwhelming advantage. Further, if the right licensing strategy is used, open source companies can successfully provide services to their customers and make compelling arguments against vendor lock-in and for rapid technology integration and adaption, both of which are increasingly important capabilities desired by tech-savvy companies.

Thus, we are witnessing a profound playing out of the FOSS movement. It’s now penetrating the mainstream and showing that it is much more than a philosophical movement, but rather is a fierce competitor with an important role in innovating and creating business opportunities. It’s going to be quite a show.


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