Wednesday, August 31, 2005

Pros and Cons of Open Source

Suppose you need a breakthrough product, fast. What kind of team do you want working for you?

Readers of my blog probably consider such problems fairly often, but rarely in the context of cookie baking. For that perspective, I recommend you turn to this week's "Food Issue" of the New Yorker magazine, where Malcolm Gladwell chronicles Project Delta (aka, "The Bakeoff"), instigated by visionary foodie Steve Gundrum.
Gundrum, who runs Mattson, a leading food R&D firm, decides to commission three competing all-star teams, each aiming to produce the next super-cookie, both decadent and healthy. The three teams are explicitly cast in different molds:
  • Extreme programming--relying on two complementary experts in partnership
  • Hierarchical R&D--relying on a senior manager who directs a group
  • Open source--relying on virtual collaboration of a "dream team" of fifteen nationally renowned all-stars
Though the open source dream team is heavily favored, it does not win. In fact, it almost never gets a recipe assembled in the first place, spending most of its time debating what kind of cookie to create, rather than actually creating it.

When does open source make sense and when does it not? Gladwell argues that open source makes sense when the goal is clear (a new Unix), but open source produces too much creative friction when real innovation is called for (a breakthrough cookie recipe).

For a more formal treatment of the merits of open source, I refer you to the Open Source Initiative, and speficially this internal report by MITRE: "A Business Case Study of Open Source Software."

In the meantime, keep an eye out at the grocery store for strawberry cobbler cookies--the winner of the bakeoff. Yum!


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