Subject: Re: A few thoughts.
From: kragen@pobox.com (Kragen)
Date: Thu, 13 Aug 1998 23:25:43 -0400 (EDT)

On Thu, 13 Aug 1998, Frank Hecker wrote:
> This is an important distinction that I was going to make in response to
> your original message, but you have already done it for me.  It leads in
> turn to an interesting question: Under this definition, which of today's
> "name brand" open source products represent actual "from scratch"
> innovation?  Such software products as Linux, Gnu Emacs, GCC/G++, GNOME,
> Apache, and Mozilla seem rather to be (re)implementations of existing
> product categories, namely Unix-like operating systems, text editors,
> C/C++ compilers, desktop managers, web servers, and web browsers
> respectively.

Well, to some extent, you are correct.

However, Emacs was one of the first screen editors, and definitely a
pioneer in the field, and it was implemented primarily by the same guy
who wrote GNU Emacs.  I don't really know why there was a break between
the two of them, but I know RMS resigned from the AI lab when he
started GNU so MIT wouldn't have any legal title to his work, and I
know GNU Emacs was written in C and Elisp instead of TECO, and for Unix
instead of ITS.

Apache was built on the open-source NCSA server, which was, I believe,
the second general-purpose Web server program.  The first web server
program, CERN httpd, was also open-source.

Mozilla isn't really relevant to this discussion, since it was not
open-source for the first 80%+ of its existence, and hasn't changed
much since then.


It's true that the vast majority of software, including the majority of
open-source software, consists mostly of reimplementations of existing
designs.  Here are some examples.

A lot of Mosaic was reimplementation of features from Lynx and Viola,
which were open-source; a lot of the commercial unices were
reimplementations of features that were already in ITS, which was
arguably open-source; a lot of Visual Basic was reimplementation of
features that were already in Tcl (although, if the VB people had known
this, it might have turned out better!); a lot of every commercial word
processor consists of poor reimplementations of parts of TeX.

In this light, it's not surprising that open-source software consists
largely of reimplementations of existing software.  But even such
things as Linux have innovations in them.


To address your other argument, which is a common one: it's true that
people won't take risks on innovation unless they can see that their
risks are likely to pay off somehow.  That may be financially through
licensing fees; it may be that they will build market share by being
ahead of the competition by incorporating innovations into their
products; it may be that they need to solve a problem, and don't care
who else uses the innovations they come up with; or it may just be that
innovating is its own reward to them.

It is unlikely that anyone will make money selling open-source software
they develop as if they are shrink-wrap software companies.  In fact,
these days, it's probably pretty hard to make money selling shrink-wrap
software if you're a new guy.

Kragen