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FT's Special Report on Open Source

The Financial Times "Digital Business" has a 12 page special report on a favourite theme of ours: open source and specifically how it is impacting innovation, collaboration, and product development within the corporate sector. (Sept 21, 2005 -- short term access only so read now.) With the FT riding high as the world's best daily for the business intelligentsia, take heed large organization types: if you ever needed a piece to put in front your boss's nose and add credibility to some of your open source ideas, this should help. Highlights include:

  • Online Revolution by Richard Waters: This covers familiar ground -- namely the growing importance of user generated content and communities of hobby tribes to help co-create value -- but is worth reading for the fresh examples. For instance, we learn that kitesurfers "have taken to using sophisticated computer modelling software to design the most efficient kites. They then share their ideas over the internet, refining their concepts before sending them to a manufacturer." It's the magic of the community process that they love, not just the technology, and the fact that they are more in control of the process. "These are the basic ingredients of a new approach to innovation."

    What does this mean for businesses that rely on more traditional “closed” approaches to innovation? The software industry provides some of the first lessons. One is that open innovation, when used successfully, forces established companies to think much harder about where they channel their research and development investments: there’s no point spending heavily in areas where a community approach has produced an acceptable alternative. Deciding where to draw the line between “open” and “closed” development, however, is not easy.
  • Many of the authors cite and highly recommend the new book Democratizing Innovation by MIT Sloan School's Eric von Hippell.
    Give us your book reviews, if you have them.

  • The March of the Web-Enabled Amateurs by Lawerence Lessig: Lessig reminds that many great intellectual projects, like the creation of the Oxford English Dictionary in the late 1800s, have had an open source component. But traditionally these projects have been costly and hard to organize. (Also see WC Book Review, In Praise of Amateurs & Passionate Hobbyists.) The internet, however, has overcome these obstacles. Whereas large scale collaborations around complex projects were once a dream, the net can now make them happen.

    Call it the age of the amateur: one who works for the love of what he does, and not for money. The "work" in this online collaboration is experiences by the "workers" as a kind of play. And this play is producing important value to society, and increasing, to corporations as well." [Is this what we do? I hope so. At the very least, I'm having fun :) ]

    In all these cases, it is technology that allows the collaboration and communities to flourish. But the technology merely enables a familiar part of human life...

    The challenge now, as Yochai Benkler, a Yale law professor, puts it in a forthcoming book, is to understand “under what conditions these many and diverse social actions can turn into an important modality of economic production” – both for the wealth that they might create, and also just for the fun of it.

    Indeed, some economic theorists are now dubbing peer-to-peer approaches the third form of production.

  • Web brings 'us' closer to 'them" by Scott Morrison where similar "prosumer" and "netizen" themes are developed:

    This collaborative innovation is starting to dissolve the distinction between producers and consumers of content – between “us” and “them”. This new content is challenging the hegemony of traditional businesses and, as with the Katrina bulletin boards, fulfilling needs typically met by the state.

    The author raises the usual questions: "But how can anyone be sure that collaborative content available on the internet is credible? Who owns online content and how can it be used and distributed? And when liability is an issue, who is responsible for it?"

    Pitting new media and blogging versus traditional media is a false battle. Both exists in tension, but both need each other now. [No kidding. What am I writing about, an article from the FT, a so-called august publication!] And mainstream experiments are underway. For instance, the LA Times developed wikitorial, an online editorial which readers were invited to rewrite. "The aim was to create a 'constantly evolving collaboration among readers in a communal search for truth.'" This didn't work, unfortunately; it was soon shut down after pornography was being posted. Tant pis. But at least they tried.

    Mirror, mirror on the wall. Who's the fairest one of all? Morrison also worries about the social balkanization and narcissistic behaviour that can occur if we're only reading and writing about the things we care about or agree with, instead being forced to entertain alternative views and see the world more broadly. Quoting Cass Sunstein from the University of Chicago Law School “Democracy is undermined when people chose to live in echo chambers of their own design." We all have a wicked stepmother in all of us. So far, fortunately, there is little evidence of this -- rather:

    The evidence so far suggests that the collaborative creativity on the internet is a powerful equaliser for the masses, even as it poses serious legal, economic and societal challenges both for “us” in the establishment and “them” (the consumers).
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    One interesting topic which was touched on briefly in the article is around the subject of Open Source Service Providers. Typically one of the largest concerns that organizations have when considering open source opportunities is that they don't have the talent or skillsets in house to maintain, support, and implement Open Source systems. This creates a new market, I find exciting, where service providers specializing in Open Source Technologies assist organizations in implementing and realizing the many benefits that surround open source iniatives. To take this a step farther, I get really excitied when I think of a possible non-profit service provider emerging who helps other non-profits, NGO's and beneficial organizations realize and reap the benefits of open source technologies. That could have a positive "world-changing" effect no?

    Posted by: Chad Weinman on 22 Sep 05

    There's also _The Success of Open Source_ by Steve Weber, if you're looking for a way to give serious backing to your open-source plans.

    Posted by: Noah Flower on 28 Sep 05



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