Friday, September 22, 2006

Open Source vs. Proprietary

It was about 203,563 years ago, on a Tuesday morning, at about 11ish in the morning. The sun was bright in the sky and there was a gentle breeze from the south. Og had a brainwave. So sick was he of burning his hands while trying to cook a rat that he picked up a stick, rammed it through the rat and held it over the fire. Beautiful he thought! Now Ms Oog will like him since he'll be able to pick lice from her back without burnt hands! Then the stick burnt through and the rat fell in the fire. Damn.

Brian was watching this and had another brainwave. He soaked the stick in water and did the same. Perfection. Crispy rat, non-crispy hands, and he ran off with Ms Oog much to Ogs disgust.

Right there, at that point competition between humans began. And so did innovation.

Roll forward 203,563 years later and competition is alive and well, and one of the most hotly debated concepts around. Especially in software. Two seemingly polarised camps have emerged, tribes if you will; open source vs. proprietary. Both are powerfully represented and passionately defended. Often the arguments between the camps are vitriolic and personal. From the open source camp comes the charge that the proprietary tribe are evil and self serving. From the proprietary group come the charges of tree hugging etc etc....

But both have solid arguments and neither are truly wrong. Open source leads to large scale groups of minds that can refine ideas over a large area. From proprietary comes innovation driven by competition. Think back to all the technological advances that have been made during war time. Would jets have developed so quickly? Would computers have been so prevalent?

Imagine a world without competition. Imagine, if you will, that Microsoft ME was the last desktop. No competition to drive the development of new software. Ok, you can stop screaming now. Without competition would we be driven to develop new advances?

I have never been 100% on one side or the other. As a system integrator I dislike closed systems. As a business person, I like competitive edge.

So what am I talking about? My greatest area of interest is in standards. For me SOA provides an interesting balance between open source and proprietary methodology. Define the interfaces and communications between systems in a standard based, community agreed way, and treat the implementation of the service (the black box portion if you will) as proprietary. Within Healthcare we have HL7 as the primary developer of standards. Recently a new Special Interest Group (SIG) has been started up; SOA for HL7. Reviewing the draft documentation from the group I see that the primary intent is to describe the service definition without technological specifics (as much as possible) and then leave the implementation of the service up to individual companies and providers.

For me this is a perfect balance between the two tribes; it allows me to ensure the work I do benefits everyone, whilst leaving me free to innovate and develop a competitive edge. I can satisfy my desire to work to a common good by involvement in the organisation AND still provide benefit to my company.

Within the industry we have discussed standards for years, but it is only recently that I have begun to feel that this is truly becoming a realistic possibility. So I will continue to harp on about standards to my customers and colleagues (sorry guys)!

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At 7:16 PM, Anonymous Anonymous said...

The innovation that happened during wartime is not a function of competition, but a result of the government stepping in and saying "OK, all you guys have to work together now and make us a jet".

The acceleration of innovation during wartime and (for another instance) during the race to the moon was caused by government intervention stepping in and telling industry that corporations have to work together and share techiques, technology and intelligence.

It was *clearing* the boundaries put up by "competition" that accelerated the innovation, not the competition itself.

Humans are not defined by their competition with one another, all species do this. The organizational factor that we have that gave us an evolutionary advantage was (and is) our ability to work together.

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