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Editor's Note: Open Source in Spandex

Jul 21, 2006, 22:30 (0 Talkback[s])
(Other stories by Brian Proffitt)

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By Brian Proffitt
Managing Editor

One of my self-indulgent hobbies is collecting comic books, and after about 25 years of following the adventures of costumed heroes I've noticed something interesting: no matter how many curveballs the writers and artists throw at the readers, the man in the red cape is still the man in the red cape. The guy swinging on the web fundementally never changes. Sure, costumes change, some characters die (usually for good) but the very nature of the character, the thing that makes them unique, never really alters.

There are times when I get the vague sense that developing software, especially open source, is a lot like life in comic books.

It goes without saying that I do not actively envision Linus Torvalds running around his computer lab in tights and a cape. Or Richard Stallman leaping around cities confronting evildoers with his GNU-arang--oh. Wait. He sorta does do that, doesn't he?

But I do see parallels in open source development. For all the new releases of software that we have seen over the years, the fundemental essense of the applications and distributions we receive still remain the same.

As any software matures, we tend to see increasingly diminishing returns on the innovations built into finished applications. Just as there's only so many ways Mr. Kent can save Ms. Lane, there's only so many ways you can build a browser. Or a distro. Or a command shell.

If I was describing proprietary softwware development, it would be much the same. Except most proprietary software not only has to perform but it is also locked into a positive revenue model. Open source software can and does make money, too, don't get me wrong. But a there's a lot of free and open source software out there that's just been made because it was needed.

So, changes in the proprietary arena are even more limited, because they are weighed against whatever profit model a company has stuck itself into.

Even with the incremental changes that occur in all software development, there is--just like in the comic books--a chance that something new will come along. DC Comics had been rolling along for almost 30 years, and had a lock on all thing superhero-related when Marvel Comics came along and reinvented the superhero genre. 20 years after that, Image Comics turned the genre into something new, with DC and Marvel scrambling to catch up.

In the open source arena, the freedom of the code means that someone can come along from seemingly nowhere and invent something new, or change something old into something better. Anyone.

Most of the time, like when we get new releases of SUSE Enterprise Linux Server and Desktop 10 this week, we see better software, but no huge new paradigm shift. And the critics wag their tongues and say how boring open source software is. What's so special about it, they ask? Go look at proprietary software and see how uninnovative it is and come back with that criticism again.

For every solid, boring release of open source software, there's always that chance that there will be something new, something that will leap tall buildings in a single bound.

Just keep looking. Not necessarily up in the sky.