Bill Gates was widely quoted (and dissed of course) late in April 2008 for saying something about open source vs. free software and the GNU General Public License (GPL). The quote of what he supposedly said makes him look so ignorant of the open source software (OSS) movement that I wondered if he was misquoted or if he purposely mixed up the terms free software and open source to take a parting shot at the Free Software Foundation as he moves on to save the world in his retirement.
Around the same time, the NY Times Freakenomics bloggers posted on what leading thinkers think about innovation. I guess they didn't include Bill Gates in the great thinkers hall of fame. But John Seely Brown (of Palo Alto Research Center fame with other similar laurels) said he feels there are four types of innovation: incremental, architectural, disruptive, and institutional. Of the four he felt instituional is often the most important though least creative and said of open source:
"For example, consider the impact that open source software license B.S.D. used for Linux is having, or the copyleft (institution) used by Wikipedia, or the creative commons licensing regimes, or.."
My first thought about his mixing up Linux and BSD and copyleft was that maybe if Brown doesn't understand OSS terms and conditions, maybe Gates doesn't either. Maybe Gates quote was truly one of ignorance. My second thought was that rather than comment on the article, I'd ask Brown if he meant to get that detailed. The clarity of great thinkers is that they don't get down in minutia the way analysts like me do, not seeing the forest for the trees, etc. etc.
His answer to my email about whether he was misquoted or whether he was trying to draw some piercing copyleft/copyright distinction was insightful and to the point:
"I happen to believe each serious Open source project tends to have its own constitution/institutional form - sometimes even called a constitution - but in any case each is a miniature institutional innovation.. but on top of that, that CC, BSD, GPL are good examples of institutional innovations. Yes as you well know they are all different with subtle and not so subtle differences. I wasn't arguing for any one form.. I was simply taking my hat off to the folks that crafted each of these and wanted to call them out as innovations in their own right with the belief that these will shape our future as much as any purely technological innovation.. "
We already know what the open source community thinks about Gates' point of view. Let us know what you think of John Seely Brown's?
As for Gates quote, definitely one last zinger!