the conservatism of open-source software

Jaron Lanier has an intriguing new column explaining his reservations about open-source software. His view is that the history of software development suggests that it’s the closed shops, the companies who make proprietary software, that are truly innovative. Thus:

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.

It’s curious to think that anarchy can be conservative — I think of Neal Stephenson’s architectural description of the Linux world as “a bunch of RVs, yurts, tepees, and geodesic domes set up in a field and organized by consensus” — but I believe Lanier’s right about this. “The open-source software community is simply too turbulent to focus its tests and maintain its criteria over an extended duration, and that is a prerequisite to evolving highly original things. There is only one iPhone, but there are hundreds of Linux releases” — hundreds of fairly slight variations, he might often added, on a traditional theme: when I look at a Linux desktop I always have a moment when I think I’m looking at Windows 98.

Lanier might also have mentioned that the closed shops actually pay money to software developers, and pay it to the best developers you can find; and even supremely talented people tend to prefer being paid for their work to doing it gratis. But in any case, Lanier’s essay is worthy of your time.