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The dilemma of open innovation

February 24, 2014 Leave a comment Go to comments

Open innovation vs. proprietary innovation

For companies, there are two ways to develop open source projects. The first one is to keep design and innovation inside your corporate borders, and only accept peripheral contributions. In that case you produce open source software, but everything else resembles traditional software development: you set the goals and roadmap for your product, and organize your development activity to meet those goals, using Agile or waterfall methodologies.

The second one is what we call open innovation: build a common and level playing field for contributions from anywhere, under the auspices of an independent body (foundation or other). In that case you don’t really have a roadmap: what ends up in the software is what the contributors manage to push through a maintainers trust tree (think: the Linux kernel) or a drastic code review / CI gate (think: OpenStack). Products or services are generally built on top of those projects and let the various participants differentiate on top of the common platform.

Now, while I heavily prefer the second option (which I find much closer to the ideals of free software), I recognize that both options are valid and both are open source. The first one ends up attracting far less contributions, but it works quite well for niche, specialized products that require some specific know-how and where focused product design gives you an edge. But the second works better to reach universal adoption and total world domination.

A tragedy of the commons

The dilemma of open innovation is that it’s a natural tragedy of the commons. You need strategic contributions to keep the project afloat: people working on project infrastructure, QA, security response, documentation, bugfixing, release management which do not directly contribute to your employer baseline as much as a tactical contribution (like a driver to interface with your hardware) would. Some companies contribute those necessary resources, while some others just get the benefits of monetizing products or services on top of the platform without contributing their fair share. The risk, of course, is that the strategic contributor gets tired of paying for the free rider.

Open innovation is a living ecosystem, a society. Like all societies, it has its parasites, its defectors, those which don’t live by the rules. And like all societies, it actually needs a certain amount of defectors, as it makes the society stronger and more able to evolve. The trick is to keep the amount of parasites down to a tolerable level. In our world, this is usually done by increasing the difficulty or the cost of defecting, while reducing the drawbacks or the cost of cooperating.

Keeping our society healthy

In his book Liars and Outliers, Bruce Schneier details the various knobs a society can play with to adjust the number of defectors. There are moral pressures, reputational pressures, institutional pressures and security pressures. In open innovation projects, moral pressures and security pressures don’t work that well, so we usually use a combination of institutional pressures (licensing, trademark rules) and reputational pressures (praising contributors, shaming free riders) to keep defectors to an acceptable level.

Those are challenges that are fully understood and regularly applied in the Linux kernel project. For OpenStack, the meteoritic growth of the project (and the expertise land-grab that came with it) protected us from the effects of the open innovation dilemma so far. But the Technical Committee shall keep an eye on this dilemma and be ready to adjust the knobs if it starts becoming more of a problem. Because at some point, it will.

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Categories: Open source, Openstack
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