TECH TALK: The Best of 2004: Software Shifts

5. Tim OReilly on the Open-Source Paradigm Shift (May)

Tim OReillys essay captures the paradigm shift that open-source software is bringing. It has been fascinating to watch how Linux and the various open-source applications have gained momentum over the year. Open-source is at the heart of the platforms built by companies by Google and Yahoo. Without commoditised hardware and open-source software, the world would have been a very different place! The importance of software in our lives will continue to increase. In emerging markets, open-source is the enabler for a level-playing field piracy and non-consumption are not long-term options. Besides, one of the personal highlights for me was my meeting with Tim OReilly during my US visit in August.

In 1962, Thomas Kuhn published a groundbreaking book entitled The Structure of Scientific Revolutions. In it, he argued that the progress of science is not gradual but (much as we now think of biological evolution), a kind of punctuated equilibrium, with moments of epochal change. When Copernicus explained the movements of the planets by postulating that they moved around the sun rather than the earth, or when Darwin introduced his ideas about the origin of species, they were doing more than just building on past discoveries, or explaining new experimental data. A truly profound scientific breakthrough, Kuhn notes, “is seldom or never just an increment to what is already known. Its assimilation requires the reconstruction of prior theory and the re-evaluation of prior fact, an intrinsically revolutionary process that is seldom completed by a single man and never overnight.”

Kuhn referred to these revolutionary processes in science as “paradigm shifts”, a term that has now entered the language to describe any profound change in our frame of reference.

Paradigm shifts occur from time to time in business as well as in science. And as with scientific revolutions, they are often hard fought, and the ideas underlying them not widely accepted until long after they were first introduced. What’s more, they often have implications that go far beyond the insights of their creators.

My premise is that free and open source developers are in much the same position today that IBM was in 1981 when it changed the rules of the computer industry, but failed to understand the consequences of the change, allowing others to reap the benefits. Most existing proprietary software vendors are no better off, playing by the old rules while the new rules are reshaping the industry around them.

I find it useful to see open source as an expression of three deep, long-term trends: the commoditization of software, Network-enabled collaboration and Software customizability (software as a service).

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Rajesh Jain

An Entrepreneur based in Mumbai, India.