Tom Lee suggests that I’m over-stating my case with regard to the innovativeness of free software:
But I don’t think this lack of originality is due to any inherent flaw in open-source contributors or the organizational model they employ. I think it’s simply a question of capital — open source projects typically haven’t got any. The vast majority of applications benefit from network effects that arise when their userbase becomes large enough: suddenly it’s easier to find someone to play against online, or the documentation is better, or you can exchange files in the same format that your friend uses. It’s relatively easy for open-source projects to achieve the necessary level of market interest when dealing with highly technical users and applications, as Tim’s examples demonstrate — there are accepted techniques (e.g. the RFC process, making frequent commits to the project) and media outlets (e.g. listservs, usenet) that can confer legitimacy and generate interest without an investment.
That isn’t true for products aimed at consumers, however — these frequently require investment in concerted promotion efforts in order to reach the network tipping point (or else must meet an unfulfilled need in a way that generates earned media like Wikipedia has). Witness the Ogg Vorbis audio format, which is widely agreed to be technically superior to MP3, offers advantages that are applicable to the average consumer, and has been almost completely ignored.
This brings up another issue: collaboration with the private sector is often much more difficult for open source projects. If Ogg had been able to attract support among portable audio player manufacturers its history might be very different. Similarly, it’s easy to imagine that if the Blender project could talk to Nvidia about what their next generation graphics cards would offer, it might be able to better-compete with professional products like Maya and 3DS Max.
Good points, all. I think one of the reasons for the perception among non-geeks that free software is derivative is because free software is most successful (in fact, it arguably only succeeds) when the developers of the product are also intensive users. So there tend to be a lot of free software programming languages, version control systems, web, mail, file, and database servers, etc, while free software tends to lag behind on more consumer-oriented projects like office suites and accounting packages.
Proprietary software manufacturers, in contrast, tend to focus on the largest possible markets, which will usually be markets without a lot of programmers. Which means that proprietary software companies are often the first to develop innovative consumer applications (which free software projects then imitate), while the free software community often builds cutting-edge geek tools (which the proprietary software world struggles to catch up to). Each tends to innovate in its areas of strength, and to imitate in areas where the other tends to be stronger.