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When the Innovation Runs Out

One of the things about open source that bugs me is cloneware. I made the term up, and there may be a better term that already exists, but I’m talking about software that merely aspires to be a copy of one or another proprietary offering. I’ve seen this even in some pretty well done projects.

As an example, here is the description for a project called Rhythmbox:

Rhythmbox is an integrated music management application, originally inspired by Apple’s iTunes.

I chose this project because I use the software daily and I hope that any offense I might cause to the rhythmbox developers will be offset by the fact that I actually really like their product. My issue is not with quality or anything like that, but with the fact that there’s this implication that the software is intended to be a clone of iTunes. The implication in this one is a soft implication, to be sure. There are far more aggregious examples that I’ll leave to your own investigation.

Now, I’ll grant that no great idea happens completely on its own. As with Isaac Newton in science, any developers who may seem to have seen further were only able to do so because they were standing on the shoulders of giants.

Now that I have given fair enough disclaimer, and with a little luck, readers will understand that I’m not ranting, but stating a potential pitfall in the open source process. So here it is, that which bugs me:
Knock-off software makes innovation the territory of proprietary software vendors, leaving the impression that OSS simply re-creates what’s already been done.

What happens when you get to that point where you have copied all the existing features? Does the process run out of gas and wait for the vendor’s next set of innovations? Of course not. Developers/hackers start innovating, stretching boundaries, etc. But there’s this perception that has been created that makes potential consumers of OSS believe that all OSS is merely about emulating that which has already been created. The development process gets discredited.

Mozilla Firefox has some great innovations that far surpass Microsoft Internet Explorer. Nat Friedman’s dashboard project, Beagle, is a good example of OSS innovation and vision possibly being borrowed by proprietary vendors. So I’m not trying to state some kind of absolute here.

But there are certainly people who think that the mission of OSS is to be the free version that puts those bastard proprietary vendors out of business. It’s a misguided sentiment, and it cheapens what is really going on in with open source.

If my point is eluding me somehow, allow me to cite the example that precipitated this blog entry. I received through a circuitous route an email full of ideas on how to improve Novell Linux Desktop. After some very good suggestions, the author–who is clearly a longtime enthusiast of both SUSE and Novell–concluded:

The easiest sell is to make the end-user transition as seamless as possible. Being that Novell and Linux will always be a threat to MS, we need to make the desktop (and assorted apps) appear as close as possible to their native counterpart. Sometimes, a complete UI interface isn’t necessarily a good thing.

Thanks guys. Remember. we’re almost there with that ultimate solution. The faster we get to market with it, the better off we are.

The author felt that desktop Linux should be a clone to Windows. Moreover, he states it’s imperative to NLD’s success. I disagree. Here is my response stating why:

Perhaps it would be good for me to share some background on philosophy that Nat and Miguel learned from early Ximian/Helix Code days:
Implementing a desktop environment that appears to be a Windows clone is a losing battle. What happens is you get an interface veneer that looks like Windows (or MS app counterpart to the OSS offering), but when you get into it a couple levels, you start finding the areas that are not identical (nor even close enough). Consequently, users end up perceiving the product as a cheaper, crappier version of Windows instead of a robust alternative to Windows. (Imagine some of the scenarios for less-technical users: I tried to install an application (Windows app) and it didn’t work! This sucks! I want the real Windows back!)
Our objective is to produce an alternative, not a substitute. So cloning Windows interfaces sends people down the wrong path. Eventually we’d like to see Linux as a very strong, very prevalent alternative client OS, able to draw people to it for its own virtues rather than merely being adopted for being a cheaper, good-enough OS.
[Name withheld] shares this desire to stick it to the man in Redmond with many Linux true-believers. I feel that it makes Linux about being “not Windows” instead of being its own thing. Novell is not doing desktop Linux as an attack on Microsoft. (That comes just as a consequence of Microsoft’s desktop dominance.) We see that Linux can become a long-term viable client platform for the enterprise, and Novell intends to be one of the companies that helps to get it there by contributing to the community effort. Cloning Windows would be a short-term strategy that would keep Linux living in the shadow cast Microsoft Windows. Novell would rather see desktop Linux step out into strong, independent roles in the enterprise.

[Nat Friedman actually gave me the foundational thinking for this response shortly after he joined Novell, so I’m not claiming that this original thinking of my own.]

The short of it is that cloning a product without actually creating any new benefit for the end user (other than “it’s free”) isn’t in itself really that compelling, and open source projects can be so much more–as evidenced by a huge number of extant, thriving projects. The idea that the purpose of OSS is merely to produce a free and open version of a proprietary software product diminishes the power of open source.

So, if you’re doing business in open source, if you’re actually commissioned to market the virtues of some open source ware or another, it’s good to highlight the differences from proprietary wares. Certainly you can discuss features as “familiar” when they truly are, but it is good to steer creating the impression that your software is pretty much the same–once you go down that hole, it’s hard to get out. Also note that that approach diminishes the hard effort and contribution of open source developers.

Stated differently, don’t expect OSS to be exactly what the world already has in proprietry software. Let’s not force hackers into being hacks.


8 Responses

  1. Dear Rev,

    Part of the problem here is the context. Anything can be cloned. That is why we value creativity. The original spark is far more precious than the knock-off. This is not a question of proprietary vs non-proprietary.

    Novell is in the position of looking for the most creative software to form a part of Novell Linux Desktop. You have the same power that DELL has when it decides which icons go on the desktop of the computer it is shipping.

    If Novell rewards creative software developers rather than cloners by giving creative software a distribution outlet then the public will respond accordingly to the better choices.

    Few people seem to understand that the Microsoft GUI is only one of many possible GUIs in the universe. I’m sure that better ones can be developed. The way to see them developed is to recognize genius when it knicks on your door.

    As to what code should be proprietary and what should not. Base code should be open source. In other words whatever is necessary to make the next advance. So for example the algorithm for drawing a straight line on a raster display is published. The implementation remains proprietary until such time as the best imlementation is arrived at. Once that happens then it becomes a standard way of doing things. Then the code for the implementation gets published.

    Following such a cycle will protect the innovators.

    — PAul

  2. PAul (omac):
    Great follow on. Thanks for your insights. You’re 2 for 2. 😉


  3. Scott Lemon adds some insight from his perspective at http://the.inevitable.org/anism/

  4. RT,

    I find sometimes that I am at odds with people about the definition of “innovation”. Before stepping back recently into a more traditional IT consulting role, I was on the technical team creating “innovative” technologies that enabled M2M (good definition at http://www.m2mmag.com)infrastructures.

    Now these systems used commercial-off-the-self puzzle pieces to create a functionality and purpose that was not available before. Yet some of these pieces (including the embedded linux core) were not really unique when looked at individually.

    I find sometimes that people get focused on the “code” or “cloning” of something and forget to look at the motivation and or the complete solution.

    I think one of the great strengths of the Linux (OSS) world is that people CAN take the pieces of the puzzle and rearrange them — sometimes creating something as innovative as the original when looked at holistically, but as a clone when looked from a component level.

    The quickest specific example I can think of today would be Linux software distributions. They basically have the same components, and they really are basically trying to achieve the same purpose — and yet are they really clones of one another when you take them as a whole?

  5. I wholeheartedly agree with Reverend Ted’s aim to keep Open Source Software creative and proactive, rather than reactive, and his qualification of this, that “creativity” is never ex nihilo.

    We only need to look at the past. The computer industry goes in mountains and plateaus. For a while, there is a conservative plateau. People make incremental improvements to an existing way of doing things. Then a spate of innovations will force a steep gradient for a few years. Before a return to the plateau.

    When the plateau turns to a mountain, the dominant force suffers. Often a whole collection of related gripes about the dominant way of doing things is aimed solely at the market leader, and is seen as an excuse to move towards the new kid on the block. Often it is just a boredom with the accepted way and a stagnated, hackneyed brand image. (Both these things happened to IBM when Microsoft took over). But the worst is reserved for the clones of that dominant force. They die almost overnight. Noone is interested in an imitator of a has-been.

    It’s a bit like a person spending years trying to get into an exclusive country club, only to be accepted when most of the members have left for that newer, swankier club just built up the road.

  6. Oh sure, make me find out about your blog through Lemon…

    “aggregious” is a fun word that by all rights should exist. Perhaps it should mean “flagrant mistruths spread through blogs.” Example: “That post on that Microsoft employee blog was the most aggregious example of FUD I’ve ever seen!” 🙂

    I’m not sure what the history of Beagle is, but at least in the Apple case I’m not aware of any derivation of Spotlight from Beagle. Apple has had interesting search products for a while, such as Sherlock (which was derived from a third-party product called Watson), and Spotlight seems more inspired by the way iTunes does searches than by anything else. Beagle does look pretty cool though, and really everyone should admit that they borrow ideas from other people all the time. That’s how memes work!

    Where I would like to see more innovation is in the application/office suite space. How long will the idea of a separate word processor/spreadsheet/database/presentation app continue to exist? Heck, the old old OpenDoc stuff had a better vision than anyone else has today. I look around and I see hardly any application innovation going on.

    Oh, and in closing, hi. 🙂

    – Todd

  7. […] long ago, I posted some thoughts on “cloneware”: free software that simply knocks off the functionality of a proprietary offering mainly for the […]

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