Innovations in Open Source

  • 5 minutes

Eugene L.

Project Manager

This is another post in the series of our notes dedicated to using open source tools for building your product. We have already explained, why open source is good and secure for business. However, there’s one more delusion or a myth, that open source software cannot be innovative. Why people think so?

No Money For Innovations

The main argument behind it is that open source solutions cannot be profitable enough for investing into innovations. If the company adopts the open source business model, it enters the uneven playing field, where proprietary software vendors have much higher profits due to the revenue from selling their products. In turn, higher profits mean more resources to invest into not only marketing, but innovations as well.

Indeed, it seems like if your product is free for copying and using, it gets hard to generate much revenue.

In fact, this concept is too general. There are a lot of companies that are profitable enough thanks to the high quality of products they are offering and effective business model. Earlier we mentioned Mozilla, which generates revenue from Firefox for user clickthroughs on Google’s ads. In 2012 Red Hat had generated over $1 billion for its open source operating system.

Other than that, there are a lot of business models that help companies keep profits high enough. For instance, many companies provide paid support of their products, dual licensing (when you can try a free version and then get an extended paid one, if you want to).

A separate idea worth mentioning is crowdfunding, which allows to gather money for your innovative open source idea even when it’s only an idea. And that’s a pretty common case nowadays, because the open source approach additionally becomes a low-cost yet effective way to market the product.

No Actual Innovations Lately

Back in 2007 Krzysztof Klincewicz, one of the professors working at the Tokyo Institute of Technology, found than only 5 of the top 500 open source projects on were representing radical innovating approaches. Indeed, can you name a truly innovative open source software?

Open source software Innovations

Linux? It was first intended as a fork of proprietary Unix OS. Yes, after 22 years of development Linux is now used in more than 95% of top 500 most powerful supercomputers in the world, but that tells more about the reliability and functionality of the product rather than about innovations.

Firefox? Yet another browser after Internet Explorer, once considered the successor of commercial Netscape Navigator (known particularly for introducing HTTP cookies).

Apache? Initially it was developed as the replacement for the NCSA HTTPd server, when the work on it had stopped.

The problem here is that innovations are now often done in way too small areas, and the products that get popular usually do not simply offer innovations, but rather are results of combining and turning those innovations into something extremely useful for its users.

Although Linux, Firefox and Apache have its own commercial prototypes, it doesn’t mean they don’t have a huge variety of different innovations done by hundreds of dedicated contributors behind them. For instance, there’s an innovative project associated with Apache called Hadoop. It is aimed to process large data sets (petabytes of unstructured information!) over distributed clusters of servers, which in turn allows to be independent from hardware when delivering high data availability.

Another example: while iOS was the first to enter the market of mobile operating systems, its open source Android that eventually took its bigger share and have been coming with many interface and logic innovations that Apple keeps borrowing in its mobile OS interface.

No Motivation for Innovations

The notion that people making open source software get no money for it and thus have no motivation to make innovations seems to be obvious, but it’s completely false.

The reason why people think so is because we usually imagine that open source projects are always started only because it is somebody’s hobby. Hell, even Linux was once a hobby of Linus Torvalds!

Open source solutions - Innovations

In fact, sometimes projects get funded by clients (like governments) who don’t really care if the code will be open until this project achieves its goals. For instance, it was the set of open source software that allowed to process petabytes of data from CERN’s Large Hadron Collider and prove the existence of the Higgs Boson.

In other cases the open source nature of the product turns out to be the only effective way to draw attention of developers and make it workable. Thus, ,any innovative medical projects like OpenClinica, Open Prosthetics and The Cure are open source, because it provides ways to find dedicated people like doctors, designers, and others eager to find or create a solution for patients and make the final product accessible to its users.

What About RubyGarage

The main open source tool that we use in our daily workflow is Ruby. Ruby was initially created as an easy-to-use language, which is innovative in its own way, because it has led to creating lots and lots of even easier-to-use Ruby frameworks like Ruby on Rails and Sinatra, which we also take advantage of to further improve our productivity.

Same for other tools we use — most of them are open source. And while we usually do not innovate when working on our projects, we know that the communities behind the open source software we’re using are so big, and the companies are so responsible, that they constantly struggling to keep it up-to-date by bringing innovations asked and required by its users.

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