Initial and Incremental Innovation

In the weeks leading up to the public unveiling of OpenSolaris, I've had many heated conversations about how software development is and will be affected by large-scale open source projects. There are no golden rules or absolute truths here; for every example I provide there are counter examples, which simply means that innovation is hard to predict.

The underlying question for these discussions came from customer queries about OpenSolaris: If we open source our precious operating system, what will we do next? The answer is what it has been for 23 years -- we'll keep inventing new things. The reason is that Sun, like any technology company with a reasonable R&D budget, expects results from the investment in basic research. The "R" component funds new ideas in operating systems, performance, networking, and interoperability. I call this initial innovation. Not just improvements to existing systems, but fundamentally big new things like Dtrace. Because the number of world-class basic computer science researchers is small, and because most of them like to work in funded companies or universities, quite a bit of the initial innovation comes from those same places. This is not peculiar to computer scientists or chip designers; it's true for brain surgeons and drug researchers and other initial inventors.

If you're a brain surgeon, the initial innovation from the major teaching centers is shared in journals and conferences; the rest of the grey matter world can them improve, implement and fine-tune the methods and procedures that come out of the labs. This is the "D" part of R&D, taking an idea and developing it into a product with market stamina. I call this incremental innovation, and it's just as critical and important as the intial innovation, but it happens on a larger scale, in more distributed fashion, and often more informally. Every time you go to see a doctor who keeps up with his or her field, you're (silently) thankful for incremental innovation.

What if you're a software developer? There are ample opportunities for incremental innovation in the operating system, web infrastructure and dynamic language areas. This doesn't imply that initial innovation can't ever come from the community; surely languages like perl prove the point. One or a few developers will always be capable of developing a critical mass of game-changing software, but the bulk of initial innovation is likely to come from funded "R" at companies like Sun and Microsoft and universities with computer sciences programs. With that innovation being opened to developer communities, more of the "D" will be driven by incremental innovation on top of the open source distribution of those initially interesting bits. Even if you're not a rocket scientist, you can at least emulate a brain surgeon.

So what's next for Sun after OpenSolaris? More innovation. More community involvement. More development. How will Sun remain competitive in the operating system space once the source code is opened up? Same way we have - more innovation. How will the users benefit? From more innovation on that source base, whether it's dozens of incremental improvements or a few large-bore clever ideas. Today's event isn't the terminal point, it's the first point in the trajectory of several innovation paths.

Thanks to Bryan Cantrill, Solaris Kernel Engineer, Claire Giordano, aforementioned queen of OpenSolaris things, and Patrick Kerpan, CTO of Borland, for their thoughts, cajoling and insights in this area. Yes, CTOs can be non-confrontational and share ideas, but if we resort to calling each other "doctor" it's usually not with a straight face.

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Hal Stern's thoughts on software, services, cloud computing, security, privacy, and data management

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