Some of you may have seen this article in Discover Magazine by Jaron Lanier. I find it difficult to argue when someone challenges “OSS obvious truths” because doing so takes some degree of professional courage. Jaron writes:

“Twenty-five years later, that concern seems to have been justified. Open wisdom-of-crowds software movements have become influential, but they haven’t promoted the kind of radical creativity I love most in computer science. If anything, they’ve been hindrances. Some of the youngest, brightest minds have been trapped in a 1970s intellectual framework because they are hypnotized into accepting old software designs as if they were facts of nature. Linux is a superbly polished copy of an antique, shinier than the original, perhaps, but still defined by it.

Before you write me that angry e-mail, please know I’m not anti–open source. I frequently argue for it in various specific projects. But a politically correct dogma holds that open source is automatically the best path to creativity and innovation, and that claim is not borne out by the facts.

Why are so many of the more sophisticated examples of code in the online world—like the page-rank algorithms in the top search engines or like Adobe’s Flash—the results of proprietary development? Why did the adored iPhone come out of what many regard as the most closed, tyrannically managed software-development shop on Earth? An honest empiricist must conclude that while the open approach has been able to create lovely, polished copies, it hasn’t been so good at creating notable originals. Even though the open-source movement has a stinging countercultural rhetoric, it has in practice been a conservative force.”

The fact that many “sophisticated examples of code in the online world” are of the commercial software kind, and not OSS, is simply because the vendor felt they could grow and be profitable without open sourcing the product. In some “innovative products” such as Joost or Skype, the open/closed nature of the underlying software is of little concern to the users. In other cases, such as RIM’s enterprise software, users may prefer a more open product, like Funambol, but are willing to trade openness for a product that just works.

When a vendor has a truly innovative product, they do whatever they can to increase their return on investment. In most cases, this means that the source code isn’t released. The conclusion is not that OSS projects don’t innovate. Rather, that projects that are truly innovative are developed by vendors whose benefactors (VCs or Wall St.) want the biggest bang for their investment. Ipso facto, closed source is usually the path taken in these situations. This has nothing to do with the type of innovation that OSS can deliver….