Open-Source Pros Debate the Process of Innovation

At this week's RVC Softedge 2003 conference, a group of open-source developers argued over innovation, commoditization and who really does the work.

NEW YORK—While open source is viewed as the movement to bring the power of software development to the people, some major proponents of the space say the most innovation is accomplished by a core group of developers.

Speaking at the RVC Softedge 2003 conference here, Marc Fleury, president of JBoss Group LLC, an Atlanta-based company that maintains the JBoss open-source application server and provides services around it, said, "We tightly control the open-source community. The idea that there are thousands of developers out there is not true—there is usually a tight-knit group that can do the work, who work full time and can innovate. There is usually a group of about 10."

David Axmark, co-founder and vice president of MySQL AB, in Uppsala, Sweden, agreed. He said there is a small group that handles the development of MySQL but "there are lots of people who do things around MySQL. Everything around it is made by this huge amount of developers. So you must distinguish between the core product and the core developers. That is a small group, and there are thousands who develop around it."

Ian Murdock, chairman and chief technology officer at Progeny Inc., in Indianapolis, who also founded the Debian Linux distribution, said the core development group remains small because "for sitting down and writing code [for the core product] the barriers are high," but for building extensions around it the barriers are "pretty low."

Richard Gabriel, a distinguished engineer and scientist at Sun Microsystems Inc., of Santa Clara, Calif., who said he runs a lab at Sun that studies open-source software for the Unix systems company, said, "We noticed the same thing. The number of developers is quite low. So we try to create markets for both open-source and proprietary software in Java."

The speakers shared a panel called "Innovation or Commoditization: Can Open Source Meet Technology Innovation?"


Axmark said open source has the tendency to do small-scale innovation, and do it quicker and better than large proprietary companies, because "you get much, much wider interaction with your user base and you get quicker responses."

Fleury mentioned that his company has been able to innovate faster than larger companies like BEA Systems Inc. and IBM because of its flexibility. He noted that he was recently invited to IBMs T.J. Watson research lab to discuss JBoss aspect-oriented programming (AOP) work. He said that while IBM has AOP work ongoing in its labs, it is not in place to implement it like JBoss is.

Fleury said his companys model is more like "professional open source." He later said, "I am actually down on open source even though I am a professional open sourcer." In an interview following the panel, Fleury said he actually meant he was down on the model of not being able to turn the software work into a business.

Murdock said his company is mostly innovative in its business model. He gave homage to Dell Corp. for its business model and called it innovative.

"Dell is a disgusting model for me," Fleury said, noting the company does not innovate. "Microsoft is innovating," he said. "I am following Microsoft."

Esther Dyson, chairman of EDventure Holdings and editor of Release 1.0, who was in the audience, said innovation is not all about technology. She added: "When did innovation become synonymous with good?"

Murdock said innovation and commoditization are parallel tracks. "Its implied that commoditization and innovation are at odds, but I dont think thats true at all."

He added: "We view open source as the commoditization of software. Its going to happen, and you ought to be able to deal with it."

Suns Gabriel offered that Sun has a theme that "innovation happens elsewhere" so "we see open source as an innovation pump."

Indeed, he said Sun also uses open source for marketing. "Its our dirty little secret," Gabriel said. "We tell things to developers on the Sun side so its coming from developers instead of from marketing, so its more believable coming from geeks."

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