Open source doesn't innovate - so goes the old saw. Proprietary software vendors, including Microsoft, would have you believe the open source movement has produced nothing but knockoffs of existing products and cast-off code that couldn't cut it in the free market.
But while many open source projects, such as OpenOffice.org, do in fact represent well-established categories, to claim that open source has contributed nothing new to the software landscape is a gross exaggeration. For starters, much of the software in use on the Web today - from the Firefox and Chrome browsers to the Apache Web Server to scripting languages such as Perl, Python, and Ruby -- began life as open source projects.
The open source movement remains a font of innovation to this day, and not just in the commercial sector. Numerous projects founded by universities, loosely knit communities, and individuals are exploring areas yet to be taken on by mainstream, proprietary software products. Here are just seven examples of exciting new ideas in software that you may be able to buy from proprietary vendors someday, but that you can only get for free from the open source community today.
Open source innovation: Alchemy
Adobe Photoshop remains the leading graphic manipulation program for proprietary operating systems, and as any GIMP user can tell you, duplicating Photoshop's feature set is a tall order. Alchemy doesn't try to do so. An open source drawing and sketching program created by Karl D. D. Willis and Jacob Hina, Alchemy eschews Photoshop's bulging toolbox and complex UI in favour of a stripped-down, minimalist approach.
Alchemy's focus is on the earliest stages of image creation, when artists doodle, sketch, and experiment in search of unique and compelling shapes. Its goal is to foster creativity, not render finished artworks. As such, it provides only a limited set of tools -- and an Undo button is not among them.
The tools Alchemy does provide, however, would astound even seasoned Photoshop experts. For example, artists can use "mirror drawing" to create symmetrical images, generate random shapes or distort shapes in random ways, or even shout into a microphone to draw using sound. Developers can add new drawing tools by creating modules -- which, like the Alchemy application itself, are written in Java, so the system runs on virtually any platform.
Alchemy isn't for everyone. In fact, it's sure to confound anyone who doesn't share its authors' freewheeling approach to the creative process. For visual artists looking for new sources of inspiration, however, Alchemy is a refreshing, open source alternative to the staid approach of so-called professional graphics software.
Open source innovation: Bespin
Mozilla Labs' Bespin project may seem little more than a run-of-the-mill programmer's editor at first -- and more edlin than Visual Studio, at that. Its UI is spare, and its editor commands are entered from a text prompt. Even the fact that Bespin runs inside a Web browser window is not terribly impressive until you understand how it works.
Under the hood, Bespin is an ambitious attempt to push the boundaries of what's possible for Web-based applications. Every element of the editor's UI, from the blinking cursor to the editor text itself, is rendered using HTML5's new "canvas" element. That makes Bespin virtually unique among modern Web applications in that it's not bound by the limitations of HTML markup and traditional Web rendering engines to display its UI.
Over the long term, however, Mozilla Labs' plans for Bespin are as intriguing as they are ambitious. Once it's mature, Bespin will offer a collaborative, online code authoring environment like no other. Because it lives in the cloud, Bespin will be uniquely suited to team-based agile development methodologies, Web application development, and even as an embedded editor for other software. And because it's based entirely on Web technologies, it won't require any firewall configuration or additional security -- which few of today's IDEs can match.
Next page: Bitcoin and eyeOS
Open source innovation: Bitcoin
Alternative currencies for e-commerce have been attempted many times, but never one quite like Bitcoin. Its creator, Satoshi Nakamoto, has dubbed it a "cryptocurrency," because it relies on public/private key cryptography to facilitate electronic trading in a completely anonymous, secure, peer-to-peer fashion.
Unlike past attempts at digital currency, there are no dedicated servers managing Bitcoin transactions and no central authority. All of the "banking" functions are distributed across individual nodes on the Bitcoin peer-to-peer network.
That presents an obvious problem. How to control inflation when there's no one to manage the supply of currency? The answer is that Bitcoin is backed by a kind of digital "gold standard." Bitcoins are created only when a user contributes something of material value: specifically, CPU cycles, which are used to solve calculations for grid computing projects. The more cycles you contribute, the fatter your Bitcoin wallet grows -- though there are throttles in place to prevent users with fast processors from generating wealth too quickly.
By far the most efficient way to accumulate Bitcoins, however, is to exchange them with other users for goods and services, which might be anything from virtual items in an online game to a real-life used car. The advantage over existing payment systems is that because Bitcoin is distributed and decentralized, no one can veto your trades and there's no middleman to skim transaction fees. Users don't even need to disclose their real-life identities to complete Bitcoin transactions. In that sense, it's not just the Bitcoin software that's open source -- so is the currency.
Open source innovation: eyeOS
Web-based productivity suites such as Google Docs and Zoho have been gaining attention lately, both for their ease of maintenance and their cloud-based storage and collaboration capabilities. But the current offerings all share the same drawback: To use the applications, you must store your data on an outside party's servers, and in some cases you must agree to allow that data to be indexed for marketing purposes.
Users who want the flexibility of cloud apps but prefer to retain control of their own data should check out eyeOS. It aims to offer a complete, web-based desktop built on readily available open source technologies, including Apache and PHP -- which means you can either use a hosted version for convenience or install your own copy in-house.
But eyeOS is more than just a prepackaged application suite. It's based on a sophisticated RIA (rich Internet application) framework, and because it's open source, it's almost infinitely customizable. Users can not only use the eyeOS framework to develop their own Web-based applications, but they can also configure the user experience with custom widgets or branding to create bespoke desktops for their customers or employees.
As the suite currently stands, power users won't find eyeOS a suitable replacement for a traditional desktop OS. It can, however, offer a worthwhile alternative for volume call center or help desk applications. More importantly, as portable Web-based terminals begin to proliferate, including Apple's iPad and Google Chrome OS devices, eyeOS may provide a much-needed bridge between the Web-only vision and a more traditional desktop computing experience.
Next page: KDE Social Desktop
Open source innovation: KDE Social Desktop
Browser-based applications are playing an increasingly central role in everyday computing. One particular trend that's driving users to the web is social networking. Sites such as Facebook, Flickr, and Twitter allow computer users to network and collaborate in new and unprecedented ways.
But not everyone believes the full, fat-client interface of a browser is necessary to bring users together. In fact, some say it's an intrusion. If social networking is becoming central to how we use our PCs, then social networking should become central to the PC user experience, integrated directly into the OS.
Enter the Social Desktop concept. Along with Gnome, the K Desktop Environment is one of two major GUI systems for Linux desktops. Beginning with version 4.3, KDE ships with a lightweight tool that allows users to locate and communicate with other KDE users in their local areas. The idea is to help KDE users build local communities and give each other advice on how to manage and maintain their Linux systems.
It's a modest beginning, to be sure. But behind this first effort is an ambitious plan to link KDE users like never before. The Open Collaboration Services (OCS) specification is a detailed API designed to help providers of social media services link their offerings with KDE desktops.
Largely the brainchild of Frank Karlitschek, so far the API works only with Karlitschek's openDesktop.org set of Websites, but the specification is open and work is under way to develop stand-alone servers that support the API.
"Trying to catch up with the features of other desktops is not enough," Karlitschek says.
If his vision comes to fruition, soon Linux desktops will have social media baked right into the desktop experience, while the leading proprietary operating systems have largely ceded that role to the browser.
Next page: Ksplice and Ubuntu
Open source innovation: Ksplice
In years past, computer users were left in charge of their own security fixes and other software updates. That meant monitoring innumerable websites and mailing lists for news of updates, then downloading and installing the patches by hand. That was both tedious and risky, because the disruptive nature of the update process often led users and IT managers to delay installing critical patches. These days, however, automatic update mechanisms are the norm, and as a result, the task of keeping software current has eased considerably.
Still, one pain point remains. Updating the operating system itself can be a tricky affair. Whether the goal is to update device drivers or fix vulnerabilities in core services, successfully patching a running operating system typically requires a reboot -- and nothing is more disruptive than that, especially for high-traffic servers.
With Ksplice, Linux users have an alternative. Originally developed by a group of MIT alumni, Ksplice is a technology that allows software maintainers to create special binary patches that can be inserted directly into a running OS kernel. No reboot is necessary; the system experiences only a momentary pause as Ksplice suspends operations, applies the patches, then resumes normal processing, almost as if nothing ever happened.
Ksplice does have some limitations. For example, if a patch makes significant changes in how data is stored and accessed by the kernel, additional new code may be necessary to help Ksplice make the transition. But because these kinds of changes are rare for the Linux code base in practice, Ksplice is able to apply the majority of security fixes with almost zero downtime. Try that with Windows or Mac OS X.
Open source innovation: Ubuntu Light/Unity
Netbooks, tablets, and other next-generation mobile computing devices are growing ever more portable, powerful, and affordable. Unfortunately, mobile software isn't improving as fast as the hardware. Most mainstream netbooks struggle to meet the demands of operating systems that were originally designed for desktops, while Apple's iPad is a powerful tablet hamstrung by a smartphone OS.
The Ubuntu community thinks it has the answer. Its new user experience software, dubbed Unity, seeks to combine the ease-of-use and accessibility of a smartphone UI with the power and flexibility of a full-fledged Linux desktop. Gone are the traditional pull-down menus and desktop widgets, replaced by a simple, push-button-style taskbar. But this is no toy OS; it can potentially run any of the thousands of applications available for Linux, GUI or otherwise.
Unity's real power becomes evident when paired with Ubuntu Light, a new, stripped-down formulation of Ubuntu Linux designed specifically for netbooks and other mobile platforms. Ubuntu Light's goal is to take users from power-on to the Web in less than 10 seconds, which makes it ideal for the emerging class of dual-boot devices that let users choose between a basic Web-browsing experience and a full-blown OS.
As competitive pressures drive the retail price of mobile computing ever lower, hardware vendors will increasingly look to Linux as a way to cut R&D manufacturing costs. But the greatest strength of Linux-based solutions such as Ubuntu Light is that because they are open source, vendors are free to tailor them to meet their exact needs, rather than trying to shoehorn old paradigms into a new class of technology.