Innovation

Dana Blankenhorn comments on the the Moonlight 2.0 release and says:

It's the kind of open source success story Microsoft wants publicized. Microsoft innovates, open source copies.

It's not the kind of open source story open source needs, however.

What open source needs is real innovation, created by teams who may or may not represent Microsoft's fierce competitors. This can be hard to deliver, and Microsoft would like us all to know resistance in this case is futile.

A few points.

First: Moonlight's core is designed to ensure that Linux users get access to content that is produced for Silverlight on the web.

This is about making sure that Linux (and for that matter any other system where Moonlight can be compiled) does not become a second class citizen on the web.

Folks will argue all day whether the Silverlight model is the right one; whether it is gaining adoption; whether it is necessary; whether it is part of the open web.

But none of that matters when trying to access content on Linux: it is either possible to use it, or not. And having a working relationship with Microsoft allows us to bring it to Linux.

Second: Dana is looking in all the wrong places for innovation. If he wants to see my team's work that deviates from the set of APIs that Microsoft has created, he could look at our work on SIMD; our interactive C#; Static compilation technology to support things like the iPhone; our cross platform MonoDevelop (Linux, OSX, Windows); Our Gtk# API for building the above; He could look at all of our Mono.* classes, or all of the libraries and APIs produced by our community (Mono.Addins, Mono.Nat, Mono.ZeroConf, BitSharp, Cecil, CocoaSharp, MonoObjc, Crimson, and some forty others; I just got tired of going through the list here and here).

All of these created to solve a particular problem with the tools that we had on the platform we used.

Or for that matter, even reading the announcements on my blog.

Or he could look elsewhere in the vast universe of open source projects for ideas that match his definition of innovation. Not everything that is built in the open source world has to be about innovating in a completely new direction.

Third, and most important one: The definition of Innovation.

Innovation

Most people that discuss innovation have not even bothered to actually think about what this means in the first place. And I am particularly bothered when people claim that open source does not innovate, but can only copy.

Google's define:innovation is a good starting point.

Are Ideas Innovations? Everyone has ideas, even great ideas. Every day you go to lunch, every day you are taking a shower, every day you are walking alone and thinking you are having new ideas.

You can have a million ideas, and these might be innovative, but if they do not reach the world, did they matter?

For an idea or an innovation to have a practical effect, they need to go beyond the discussion at the lunch table with your friends and become a reality.

Bringing an Idea to Life Once I sit down and turn my idea into an actual tangible result there are a number of hurdles in my path.

The idea must be good enough for people to try out, I must get it distributed, and I must get people to use it.

Being first versus being to market first: It does not matter that many great ideas originate in the open source world or at the lunch table with your friends. You must bring the ideas to the public and the public must be in a position to adopt it.

For instance, Compaq/Digital were showing portable MP3 players based on Linux years before the iPod took the world by storm. Yet, nobody remembers these devices anymore and Apple gets the credit for bringing digital audio to the masses.

Or tagging and searching your email. GMail uses it today, but few people remember that the idea had been implemented before in Digital's Pachyderm.

Many ideas might originate as personal prototypes or even open source prototypes, but without a distribution channel and an ecosystem that would sustain the innovation many of those ideas exist merely to be replaced by folks in a better position to market/distribute it.

Claiming "I had the idea first" or "we were the first ones" is of little consolation if someone out-executes and out-markets you.

Definitions of Innovation: Wikipedia (as of 10 seconds ago) defines Innovation as:

The term innovation means a new way of doing something. It may refer to incremental, radical, and revolutionary changes in thinking, products, processes, or organizations. A distinction is typically made between invention, an idea made manifest, and innovation, ideas applied successfully.

I also like this one (from Google's define: too):

Innovation is the process that translates knowledge into economic growth and social well-being. It encompasses a series of scientific, technological, organizational, financial and commercial activities.

I think that Moonlight fits this definition perfectly well in that case.

Moonlight and Innovation

Sure, we do follow the APIs that Microsoft set for Silverlight.

But we have innovated in a number of ways:

  • We innovate in the development process: we are an open source project, taking contributions and consuming other open source components.

    We dogfood other FOSS components, and we iterate to improve them.

    In 1999, the MIT Technology Review magazine named me the innovator of the year. In the award ceremony, Bob Metcalfe said that I was receiving the award for the work on Gnome, not because Gnome was a ground-breaking system, but because the goals and processes of Gnome were.

  • We innovate in our cross-platform stance: Moonlight runs on more platforms (although admittedly, with a smaller market share than Windows and MacOS).
  • We had out-of-browser support before Silverlight did: Sure it was trivial, but we had it before (see above note on futility of claiming "we were here first").
  • Working with Microsoft: Ok, this is a bit of a stretch to claim as innovation, but here it goes: I am very proud that we are finding ways of working with a company that for many years resisted Linux and open source as well as helping Microsoft with all of its inertia become more open source friendly.
  • Update: Mats on the comments points out something that I wish I had thought of when I wrote this: "Innovation is also, and I'd say mostly if history teaches us anything, about building and improving upon ideas - not just making new ones from scratch."

We (the Mono/Moonlight team) are not Dana's beacon of revolutionary change. But it is no secret that we are fans of the CLI virtual machine, and we believe that giving developers this platform will help them turn their ideas into innovations by giving them the best technologies available.

Users of Mono and Moonlight have already demonstrated that they have way better ideas than I have ever had. And they already have used Mono in brilliant ways. Dana might want to check my blog more periodically to take note of those innovations.

Posted on 06 May 2009 by Miguel de Icaza
This is a personal web page. Things said here do not represent the position of my employer.