As the evolution of open source as a movement, industry and [revolutionary] wave continues to have a ripple effect on everything around it. There are certain high-level trends which can be identified, even if they aren't as easily proved. In the 1920s, Russian economist Nicolai Kondratiev was at the forefront of research into global activity linked to the concept of sustained economic growth fueled by specific technologies. Kondratiev's early work, while not entirely definitive, has left significant room for dispute as well as extension/application.
For those who familiar with Carlota Perez, currently Visiting Senior Research Fellow at the Cambridge Endowment for Research in Finance (CERF) and author of "Technological Revolutions and Financial Capital: The Dynamics of Bubbles and Golden Ages" which focuses on the correlation between technological change and financial investments, the topic of technology inspired economic growth might be quite familiar. Otherwise, it suffices to say that when viewed at a high level the overall development of IT, for lack of a better suited generic term, does appear to exhibit analogous characteristics to previous cycles. Using that parallel as well as a loose classification of open source as a subset of IT in general, it is possible to apply the Kondratiev wave to open source as a technological revolution.
Perez breaks down the cycles of a Kondratiev wave into four distinct phases, as pictured below:
Courtesy of "Technological Revolutions and Financial Capital: The Dynamics of Bubbles and Golden Ages" (Carlota Perez, 2003).
While a great deal of the terms used by Perez are more applicable to bubbles (which open source is not) and less to sustained paradigm shifts, there is quite a bit which can be interpreted from some of the parallels. So, putting aside the timeline conveyed on the above x-axis (for lack of time to perform a viable time translation), these four phases have serious overlap and application to open source software as an evolving revolution of technology and business models.
Through those particular lenses as it pertains to the technical and business planes of open source, the above pictured "Installation Period," consists of the:
- Eruption phase -- Based on earlier advances a trigger occurs that initiates a new wave of growth based on an essentially new paradigm. This phase is captured by the essence of the grassroots growth of the Linux operating system and Apache web server [ecosystems]. Despite being less of an eruption and more of a upsurge, the maturation of the Linux and Apache communities in their early through late-early years gave way to an ideological push for other open source efforts. Not to mention their value as proofs of concepts of the open source development model, a virtually unknown concept at the time.
- Frenzy phase -- Typified by a frenzy of growth and capital/resource investment, this is where new business models and modes of production come into being. As of 2007, open source currently sits in the mid-late to early-late stages of this phase. Proof of this can be found in the numbers for gross investments in open source companies since 2000. The rapid growth rate of new infrastructure within the commercial open source space will gradually give way to maturation and refinement. At the forefront of this juncture will be the solidification of service delivery (coming soon) and standards (already happening) within the industry, which will in turn drive the continued growth of business infrastructure where the beginning of this phase was characterized by the growth of more product-oriented infrastructure.
The next half of the wave is labeled the "Deployment Period" and is compiled of:
- Synergy phase -- Perez gives this the title of "golden age," where confidence and acceptance of a new technology blooms and when coupled with continued investment in basic infrastructure, the result is the growth of a vibrant economic ecosystem. The rate of growth tends to slow, but remains consistently robust. This is the stage where, fueled by growing business confidence, social awareness begins to climb to meet the growth of the industry. For open source this will entail a larger scale of acceptance of the open business models which have absolutely nothing to do with software. This has begun today, but is in its infancy and is still viewed as a concept as opposed to a practical business process, at this point the technology is less important as is the positive force gathering around and behind it. In addition, various social concerns will most likely be raised as acceptance moves into the definite mainstream and more issues crop up as a result. Even more economic growth will be powered by proven approaches being weaved together with closely related services and offerings. Looking forward, this is where Linux on the desktop will emerge as its own full fledged ecosystem in the same way that server side Linux did in the Frenzy phase. Having already reaped the benefit of better established infrastructure, an entirely new set of opportunities will arise on the back of an increasingly standardized and open desktop environment.
- Maturity phase -- Cast as the dusk of the Deployment Period, this phase is supposedly marked with declining growth and unfulfilled expectations on account of the limits of the technology become evident. Here is where I think the open source movement will begin to evolve into a more advanced form of its current one. To predict how much more advanced in which ways would be facetious and difficult to back with supporting evidence. However, it suffices to say that the open nature of the model will lend itself to a high degree of adaptability which will prevent a precipitous drop-off/cooling period characteristic of fads. It is a strong possibility that the strong levels of commercialization within the industry will lead to a grassroots reaction which will set off entirely new/hybrid wave.
The work of Kondratiev/Perez does a decent job of abstracting out underlying aberrations and random developments over the short term in favor of providing the case for stronger analysis of longer term trends. However, models are just that...models and are meant as mock-ups of reality, which is always trickier and less predictable. The work mentioned here is capable of being applied directly to the open source software movement but can do no more to predict its eventual path than anything else in the physical world. Still it is very much helpful to gain some perspective on where things might be headed as they show signs of following a given road.