I’ve just returned home after a fascinating two days writing the live blog for the Innovation Track, one of three tracks at the TransferSummit, a conference sponsored and organised by OSS Watch. This track was billed as a ‘top-level immersion into the world of open source’. It delivered comprehensively.
Far too much ground was covered to hope to include every detail in a piece like this one. Hopefully, the live blog should demonstrate how informative the discussions were. You can also get a good feel for the breadth of the talks if you click through the links on the TransferSummit programme to look at the speakers’ slides. Here I’ll just aim to provide a few general impressions.
Keble in the sunshine
The first thing to note is how pleasant the whole event was. Even though I was working hard to keep up with the blog, I enjoyed myself. True, when I had to pull down a blind to stop the strong sun shining on the screen of my laptop, it gave me a slightly sad feeling – but being at the conference still beat being in the office. It was certainly far more interesting than the average day’s work. Indeed, bathed in that sunshine, in the beautiful Victorian Gothic enclosures of Keble College, there was a feeling of respite from the problems of the world.
That’s not to say that delegates didn’t have such troubles in mind, however. The budget cuts faced by projects across the education, public and commercial sectors were clearly causing serious concern. Even so, the overall atmosphere was optimistic. There was a a definite sense that progress was being made in the arguments for open innovation – and indeed that in a time of financial hardship that case becomes even stronger.
As Steven Pemberton said in his keynote speech, Open Source Is Not Enough!, ‘we are through the first stage’ in getting open innovation technology accepted and now the main task is to make it better.
Of course, there are still difficulties and complexities relating to the use of open innovation. Martin Michlmayr in his talk on The State Of Open Source Licensing and How To Improve It and Mark Taylor in his talk on FOSS Business Models ably demonstrated the tangled wood of licences and legal complexity faced by anyone hoping to launch an open source project – as well as providing a good route through.
It should also be noted that delegates again and again returned to the point that although open innovation may reduce some costs to close to zero, it shouldn’t be seen as a free for all. Andrew Savory, the open source manager for Limo Foundation, stressed in his talk about the Economics Of Innovation In Mobile Technologies, that open source is not an ‘all you can eat buffet’. It works best when the companies that use it give something back. It’s then that it does offer real cost savings, as well as access to reservoirs of talent that couldn’t otherwise be tapped, and an economy of scale begins to build up.
On that note, Steven Pemberton gave the famous example of wikipedia compared to the hugely expensive Encyclopaedia Britannica of old and how ‘little things’ (such as the many individual wiki contributions) can join together ‘to make a big thing better and better’.
The savings that open source software (OSS) can deliver in all sectors were also widely referred to, but one of the most striking examples of its benefits came from the fiercely commercial mobile technology sector. Andrew Savory pointed to the smartphone market, where consumers are demanding ever more features for ever less money, meaning that we have now reached a point where companies are having to invest more than they get back from their technology. So those companies have now started to look more seriously at open source software. They have discovered that it brings not only reduced costs to the acquisition of software, but also reduced costs of access to innovation and – crucially – reduced costs of software ownership (since there is a greatly reduced maintenance burden for true OSS). So it is that HTC has leapfrogged the competition thanks to its use of open innovation.
Clearly there is going to have to be a big cultural shift among companies who are generally secretive, and who are unused to the meritocracy that exists within OSS development, but evidence that OSS is the way forward is beginning to stack up. Andrew also highlighted the Mobile Open Source Economic Analysis white paper, showing that it’s even cheaper for companies to merge early and contribute early to OSS development streams – rather than ‘forking’ off and trying to keep their own innovations with regard to the software to themselves for as long as possible.
Coming back to the question raised by Steven Pemberton, about how to make open innovation work better, there were a number of well-attended talks about how to build up and value communities. Paul Walk of UKOLN stressed the simple importance of giving recognition to the work that developers do and helping them better explain their ideas and projects to the world away from the keyboard. Gianugo Rabellino, the former CEO of Sourcesense told us that if we recognise communities as places ‘where individuals come together to reap a reward … we come to understand why collaboration works so well – and why people are producing open source software’. Gill Rysiecki gave excellent practical examples of how the Technology Strategies Board initiative, Knowledge Transfer Partnerships, can help academic developers reach out to the business community – and vica versa. Scott Wilson, the Assistant director of CETIS also made the important point that ‘inclusion and openness depend on collective responsibility’. open source works when people feel they have a stake in it.
In his keynote speech on day two Roland Harwood also gave powerful arguments about the importance of community – and how effective exchanging ideas with different companies can be – a particularly striking example being how the McLaren Formula 1 team were able to help improve processes in A&E at Great Ormond Street Hospital. To emphasise his point he quoted the proverb: ‘If you want to go fast, go alone, if you want to go far, got together.’
Happily, this latter theme was well demonstrated by the conference itself. The buzz was all about open innovation and how best to achieve it. All the delegates I spoke to were deeply involved in the subject and determined to use the conference to learn as much as they could. They were also eager to make those vital connections with people heading in the same direction. There was just as much debate at lunchtime as there was in the formal talks and plenaries.
Naturally, since this was a gathering of technologists, there was also a lot of interest in the ipads, smartphones and various pieces of kit that people had brought with them. Samuel Klein, speaking as a a volunteer Trustee of the Wikimedia Foundation (who had been re-routed into the Innovation Track after being delayed in Boston), provided a great firsthand account of the history and development of wikipedia and many of its related projects – and how MediaWiki has scaled up using open source methods. However, he caused the biggest stir with a demonstration of one of the first new OLPC XOs that also run Gnome, which he had with him as he is also the director of outreach for One Laptop per Child.
Samuel Klein and the new OLPC XO
Yet even when it came to gadgets, the conversation kept coming back to licensing and the openness of various software platforms. My own HTC phone was several times singled out for approval (gratifying for a technological layman such as myself). But it was the arguments rather than the compliments that left the strongest impression. The innovation track had generated a real feeling that open source is only going to become more important in the next few years.