Open source and innovation

Are the open source software projects actually innovative? Krzysztof Klincewicz dared to ask the controversial question, and his research findings were initially frowned upon by many representatives of the open source community. The paper published within an open source software research program of the Massachusetts Institute of Technology was however not intended to support the corporate offerings of proprietary technologies. Using a sample of 500 most active open source projects, registered by the developer portal SourceForge.net, he critically evaluated the innovativeness of these efforts.

The analyzed projects corresponded to 3% of all active projects, registered by this portal, and were involving 18% of all SourceForge community developers.

Most of the projects (87.2%) turned out to be focused on commodification of previously proprietary solutions, and were bringing existing (or similar) technologies to the already present markets. Only 5 projects (1%) could be classified as radical inventions or breakthroughs. Some initiatives were modifying technologies (0.8%) or platforms (10.4%), or applying existing technologies to new markets i.e. implementing marketing innovations (0.6%).

Interestingly, the breakthrough projects were attracting on average more developers, receiving more support requests and being discussed more frequently in online forums than the non-innovative projects. In 2005, the open source community was still relatively unattractive to commercial companies, and it took some time to establish viable business models for radically innovative projects to take up, but even at that time, breakthrough projects were accompanied by higher interest of software developers and users. The research discussed the underlying mechanisms, which were restricting the innovativeness of community-driven open source efforts, and postulated the establishment of an institution of “idea brokers”, who would play the roles corresponding to venture capitalists in the commercial software domain.

The research was featured among others by the international IT research & analysis company IDC, Internet portal Huffington Post, as well as numerous open source-related portals, news platforms and blogs.

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