Why FOSS should pull out of the race to find an iPhone killer

March 25, 2011

What does open source innovation look like, and how will it win out over iOS and Windows? (This post inspired by a recent episode of the Ubuntu UK Podcast (UUPC).)

Here’s a list of open source innovations:

  • Firefox (building on Netscape)
  • Linux (building on Unix etc)
  • wobbly windows (Compiz and the like)

And here is a list of things which open source has emulated, and yet failed to break free of the shadow of that proprietary competitor:

  • iOS, with Android
  • Windows, with… ok I can’t think of anything FOSS has ripped off here. The Start menu-esque button in KDE3? The clock?
  • iTunes, with Amarok, Banshee, Rhythmbox…
  • Microsoft Office, with OpenOffice, LibreOffice and the like.

Finally, there are things which open source projects pioneered or perfected but which eventually also made it into proprietary and mainstream products:

In any case, these lists can be lengthened as much as you want, but they end up demonstrating a distinctive characteristic of open source innovation which identifies not only those things which FOSS excels at, but also give us an insight into why these things remain a geek passion at present.

Open Source leads the way

Open source developers create or build on pioneering technology, demonstrate its awesomeness, iron out the flaws and make it implementable (not ‘useful’ necessarily). It’s then applied by other products in a less showy way (sorry, desktop fire-writing) which adds functionality or usability to a product.

But when it comes to delivering to the world a brand new concept or a previously-derided form factor (you know what I’m talking about) then it falls short. This is much to do with the lack of open source industrial design skills in the community or access to manufacturing plants, but it’s also to do with the nature of open source.

FOSS developers are always refining, co-operating to squash all bugs and progress the project. This evolutionary process hones features and concepts, and every now and again brings us something so different, so mould-breaking and awesome, that at first only the geeks appreciate its brilliance. Again, I’m sure you know countless examples of what I mean.

How to take on the Big Boys

So how does this help FOSS take on the might of iOS and the market share of Windows 7? Well, open source should pull out of this race and start its own.

Unity and Gnome Shell are doing this automatically, because they’re so different to what went before. HTC’s Sense interface is different enough to stand on its own two feet, rather than in Apple’s shadow.

And that’s why the innovations of open source are those which enable crazy new paradigms which others often then adapt into something more usable, or improve existing products feature by feature, bug by bug.

And so FOSS, perhaps the tortoise in this race, will slowly and steadily end up overtaking the complacent hares and winning the day.

Can you think of any more examples for the list? Or do you think I’m barking up the completely wrong tree? Let me know in the comments!