Wednesday, May 21, 2008

Hierarchical communities vs. the open-source revolution.

I have sensed an undercurrent of hoarding in the field of automotive design, and I wanted to address what open-source might mean to such folks who feel the need NOT to share.


(N.B. All bets are off and this post does NOT apply if you live in a world that is a zero sum game (i.e. if I win, you lose, and only 1 person can be on top). Though transportation design is a competitive field, thankfully there is room for many greats. So to those in our community, this post applies…. i.e. please read on.)

At issue in this discussion is those people who possess great skills and who hold them up in their own private world to preserve their “authenticity”.

Such people have reached a level of hierarchy and competition, from where they might think that they have made it and are “moving on up”. In fact, they are firmly planted on a plateau. They constantly strive and yearn for a higher position of wealth, recognition, and expertise because their skills are “just that good”.

If this sounds like you, then read on, because there is a parable here that might be useful.

Of course, you probably find yourself fearing that if you share your best work, your ideas will be ripped off and sold to the lowest bidder in the global auction of hungry hobbyists who will never amount to much.

But there is a higher order.

If you have the fortitude to share your ideas you stand to become exalted among your crowd. This is no Jedi-mind-trick, and here is why. Though it is true that someone can steal what you share and look good momentarily, when they are tested to perform beyond that piece of work, they will fall flat and they will look worse than if they had never used your idea in the first place. On the other hand, if you share a good idea with them, you help them to learn and grow, and you look good in their eyes. Then if they, in turn, give you credit, they look better and more honest in the eyes of their judges, and you get credit which lifts you to an even higher platform –that of a guru or go-to expert. Ergo sharing is “good”.

Once you are the one sharing and helping others grow, you rise to a different and much higher status where you are running your own studio or atelier - be it virtual or physical. That is where the REAL competition begins. It is only from this elevated vantage point that you realize the plateau, where you were stuck before, is a life that ends in secrecy and constant ravaging and disappointment. Ergo sharing is “great”.

Of course, taking the sharing route will also expose your own weaknesses (something only the egotistical believe that they don’t have). But here is the beautiful thing. The quickest way to improve on your weaknesses is to access the members of your studio or atelier and to learn from them where they may be stronger than you.

If this is sounding like Greek to you, take the story of two brilliant coders who were working on operating systems in the 80’s and early 90’s.


On February 3, 1976 Bill Gates wrote a frustrated Open Letter to Hobbyist coders:

“Will quality software be written for the hobby market?.....

As the majority of hobbyists must be aware, most of you steal your software…..

One thing you do [by stealing software] is prevent good software from being written. Who can afford to do professional work for nothing? What hobbyist can put 3-man years into programming, finding all bugs, documenting his product and distribute for free? The fact is, no one besides [Paul Allen and myself] has invested a lot of money in hobby software….

I would appreciate letters from any one who wants to pay up [for the professional code we have written], or has a suggestion or comment. Just write to me at 1180 Alvarado SE, #114, Albuquerque, New Mexico, 87108. Nothing would please me more than being able to hire ten programmers and deluge the hobby market with good software.”


Compare his vision of the world to the words of another brilliant coder.


On October 5, 1991, Linus Torvalds, the founder of Linux, wrote in an open post on comp.os.minix:

“Do you pine for the nice days of minix-1.1, when men were men and wrote their own device drivers? Are you without a nice project and just dying to cut your teeth on a OS you can try to modify for your needs? Are you finding it frustrating when everything works on minix? No more all- nighters to get a nifty program working? Then this post might be just for you :-)…….

…….I can (well, almost) hear you asking yourselves "why?". Hurd will be out in a year (or two, or next month, who knows), and I've already got minix. This is a program for hackers by a hacker. I've enjouyed [sic] doing it, and somebody might enjoy looking at it and even modifying it for their own needs. It is still small enough to understand, use and modify, and I'm looking forward to any comments you might have.

I'm also interested in hearing from anybody who has written any of the utilities/library functions for minix. If your efforts are freely
distributable (under copyright or even public domain), I'd like to hear from you, so I can add them to the system. I'm using Earl Chews estdio [sic] right now (thanks for a nice and working system Earl), and similar works will be very welcome [sic]. Your (C)'s will of course be left intact. Drop me a line if you are willing to let me use your code.”


Torvalds was a hacker who was ready to share his ideas and to give credit to those who help him along the way. Little did he know that he had just launched a revolution which would soon rival and challenge the dominance of Microsoft.

Of course, the post mortem is that Gates was colossally wrong and that open-source hobbyists have eventually outsmarted Microsoft and stolen huge market share. (think Firefox vs. Internet explorer) True, Gates made a boat load of money along the way, but his code (the thing you take most pride in as a coder) is seen as cumbersome and buggy, while the open-source code is seen as clean and self-correcting.

When you think of your position as a transportation designer, I would ask yourself, which side of the fence do you aspire to be on when you have lived your life: complicated, cumbersome, and buggy… or clean, fast, and self-correcting?

(Great credit is due to Eric von Hippel and Karim Lakhani for the kernel of ideas found in this post and the juxtaposition of Gates and Torvalds)


Andrew Cronk said...

Worlds. Richest. Man. (formerly)

I will gladly accept $50 Billion buggy dollars; look at the charities and causes those dollars are being used for now.

My biggest beef with open source software (OSS) is that I feel there is little pure innovation. Alot of apps are written with a villain in mind, trying to displace it.

I use the latest version of Ubuntu Linux as my daily driver, and the yardstick for comparison is always, "I can do everything that I can in Windows". Why can't I do MORE?

I feel there is a misalignment of incentives to create brand new things. Everyone loves a David (Linux) vs Goliath (Windows) battle, and can rally around it.

But what if David had no opponent? Who is the rally cry against? I feel that this is where commercial software rules and is still producing the majority of new innovative ideas (which will later be cloned and rewritten by OSS).

Glenn Mercer said...

All good points as always but one small comment. In automotive design to some extent "we the people" bring this on ourselves by taking numerous potshots at car design all the time. Look at the letters column of ANY car mag in ANY language and count how many letters read roughly like this: "Well the new Toyota/Honda/Renault/Ford X is an obvious ripoff of the old Ford/Honda/Renault/Toyota Y from the year 19XX." Because car designs are in the long run fairly limited in degrees of freedom (e.g. it is pretty rare to see a car with say the passenger perched above the driver, or with six seats all in a row, etc.)virtually every car is in some way derivative of some other one(s). But we fanboys tend to react negatively ("you stole that!" -- look how much grousing there is STILL about the Miata having "ripped off" the Lotus Elan)instead of positively ("wow, really nice interpretation of a design theme cars A B and C have explored also!"). If I were a designer I would be so wounded and paranoid by all this I would probably hoard, too! (grin)

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