Accelerating innovation

Thesis: open source becomes new type of industry standard

The most successful and widespread technologies in the physical sense are industry standards like wifi and usb. There are similar standards in the software world like html, css and js. The driving force behind the success of these standards is the wide adoption and the ubiquitousness of the technology.

In the software world, the closest we have come to standards are standards on communication protocols and presentation specifications. But I see the first shimmers of standardized software with open source. Open source was born out of developers and academics fixing their own problems and sharing it with the world, but that has changed.

One eye-catching project is chromium. Chromium is the open source part of the Chrome web browser started by Google. But the project has slowly been adopted by other vendors and now Microsoft joins the club. Chromium can already be considered the industry standard browser through the popularity of Chrome, but many others are using it too as the basis for their web browser solutions. The industry actively collaborates together on the common elements and then mold it into a version of their own.

This is great progress. Some may lament that besides Firefox there is no competition on the market of web browsers. While this is true, industry standards have a way of moving the world forward as a whole and saving us from a lot of problems with incompatibility. Today, there is a whole service industry to deal with cross-browser incompatibilities. Not sure if that is so much better.

The biggest threat I see is that the browser becomes a commoditized second-rate citizen while everyone else focuses on native applications. This is a possible end-state in the future. Today, it saves a lot of engineering work and improves the customer experience, but there is no guarantee development will become stale. It is certainly a risk, but that risk is outweighed by the benefits today of having a standard.

Something similar happened to the Linux kernel. Even though it started out as a volunteer project, most contributions today are made by company staff. The Linux kernel has saved us from a lot of duplicated engineering and set the standard for operating systems. There is no real competitor in the mobile/small device space. It enabled standardization of hardware platforms which led to the commoditization of those platforms. This brought down the cost and that drives a lot of the innovation we are seeing today.

I can see this happening more foten. Standards are great for pushing technology forward and with open source as a collaboration method for the technology industry, we can push it forward even faster.

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