Friday, June 17, 2011

Nostalgic About the Future: Open Source Entrepreneurship

Today's columnist is Julian Egelstaff from Freeform Solutions. He writes:
I'm nostalgic about the future. That sounds mixed up, but it's true. The future used to be a wondrous place, full of flying cars and plastic clothes and amazing architecture. Those were the good old “world's of tomorrow.” Some of them are still with us in a sense. The Seattle Space Needle predates the moon landings, and proudly shows us the sleek, stylized future that awaited us all afterwards.
The buildings of Ontario Place were constructed less than a decade after the World's Fair that brought us the Space Needle. The Ontario Place pavilions, hovering over water, speak the same optimistic language of the future. When they were new, they were filled with previews of tomorrow; I still vividly remember being there thirty years ago, and seeing computer animation for the first time — a wireframe paper airplane floating endlessly over a blocky landscape.
Somehow, we slipped off that path to the future and ended up in a different place. No flying cars (too bad). No plastic clothes (thank goodness). The Ontario Place pavilions are now deserted, awaiting demolition.
But on the flip side, we do have the Internet, more communications technology in our pockets than anyone could have dreamed of a generation ago, and a lot of open source software underlying it all. Sure, we didn't end up where some people thought we would, but it's been a wonderful march to a better tomorrow, hasn't it?
When we look back, it's easy to see the steps, though they're not always linear. In the case of open source and the Internet, you could single out:
But when we try and predict what's coming next — a key goal of any decent entrepreneur (entrepreneurship being the continuing theme of this month's OSBR) — it's a trap to look at that seemingly forward march of progress, and extrapolate to see tomorrow's technology today.
As Kierkegaard said, “Life can only be understood backwards; but it must be lived forwards.” History is the same way. It seems orderly when we're looking back, but that's just us imposing an interpretation on a series of scattered data points.
The progress of open source is not inevitable, and just because a lot of people seem to line up behind an idea, that doesn't make it come to pass. How many times have you heard people say that Linux will be “ready for the desktop” now/this year/next year/in three years? Sure, it's closer than ever before, but it's definitely not a mainstream desktop operating system, and it might never be.
Some people have suggested that there should be an open source “marketing board” modelled after the egg marketing board or the milk marketing board. This is an interesting idea, which has not yet come to pass, and which highlights the necessary interplay between technology and other forces, like business.
As technologists, those of us involved in open source see a bright future for it, and believe it can achieve great things. But the technology won't get there on its own. If you invent it, they might not come. The history of technology is full of examples of the truly sideways march of progress.
For instance, early crystal radio sets employed the first semiconductor diodes to tune in signals. This early innovation was replaced by vacuum tubes which dominated the electronics industry until the transistor came along in the 1950s.
Looking back on it now, vacuum tubes were a complete detour off the semiconductor path. How much interest and research into crystals and semiconductors never happened, or happened only later, because of the dominance of vacuum tubes? What effect did that detour have on the emergence of the modern semiconductor industry, now the backbone of all computing?
Even something that seems like a basic law now, such as having 8-bits in a byte, wasn't a natural or inevitable property of our modern technology. Before IBM introduced the System 360 in 1964, there had been computer systems using all kinds of different byte sizes, all the way up to 36! The dominance of the System 360 was one reason that 8-bits became the standard. Then came the Intel 8008, and before you knew it, the 8-bit future was here today.
We tend to view the successful technologies as somehow better than what came before. In evolutionary terms, we want to believe that the dominant forms are somehow better adapted to their environments. We search for the good reason that explains why things worked out the way they did. But history (and biology) shows that the reasons for success don't always come from the correctness of the solution.
Opposable thumbs and bigger brains no doubt provided some significant advantages to the living things that inherited them. But not all adaptations produce benefits. Some things happen by accident, or a string of accidents. Features that look useful from our point of view (hindsight), might just be side effects as far as natural selection is concerned.
Other features of organisms must have had intermediate forms, with some distinct benefits of their own, even if those benefits are difficult for us to appreciate with hindsight alone. A classic example is a wing. Wings didn't evolve because of the great benefits that flying conveys. Half a wing doesn't convey any flight benefits, and clearly wings didn't evolve in one generation. So intermediate stages must have provided some benefit of their own, independent of flight.
Similarly in the technology field, we shouldn't look at the successful technologies of today and assume they are the culmination of development that was aiming specifically for their current success. Unfortunately, real life is very messy, and technologies become successful for lots of different reasons, not just the intentions of their creators.
Taming these forces is one of the key challenges for any entrepreneur. As a wise man once said, “The universe tends towards maximum irony.” Or put another way, there's a lot of natural forces conspiring against your version of the future ever coming to pass. So if we really want open source to live up to its potential, there's still a lot of work to do. The technology won't make the future happen by itself.
That's the other reason I'm nostalgic for the future, the wonderland version of it that was going to be here today. There was a wonderfully naive air of inevitability about it, like a sure view of history, just running in reverse. Hopefully one day we'll get there, and when we do, we'll pat ourselves on the back and it won't seem like the journey was so hard. Future generations might think it was preordained. But the truth is that our future will be a close run thing. It always is.

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