Wednesday, January 2, 2008

Altruism or cross-subsidy?

Mary Lou Jepsen, the CTO and first employee of One Laptop Per Child quit OLPC Monday to form a for-profit startup. While I have not followed OLPC closely — and obviously anyone would be overshadowed by OLPC founder Nicholas Negroponte — I gather she played a central role (if not the central role) in developing many of the key technologies.

This reminds me of the early (long-since settled) debate about open source software. Initially it looked like altruism, then people noticed that many of the volunteers were student programmers improving (and signaling) their job-related skills. Finally, we saw a rush of open source-related businesses.

Jepsen herself made the parallels to open source explicit in her comments to a blog posting.

  1. My new company *is* trying to explore the concepts of open hardware - and trying to figure out the right way to do it. I've been asking many people for advice on this: Richard Stallman, Eben Moglen, Larry Lessig, John Gilmore, Brewster Kahle, etc. We are struggling through it. Hardware is different from software - but how can we open it up?
  2. Doesn't anyone want a 50 Euro laptop? I do. I'm not talking about designing last years product for next year. Other people can do that..I plan to continue to innovate and invent.
  3. Finally: I'm not taking my inventions from OLPC - I'm licensing them from OLPC. Why: An inventor has a good chance of improving the price/performance of her inventions. Why restrict her access to them if our goal is lower cost computing for the developing world?
Stallman and Moglen are of course the leaders of the Free Software movement (the more ideological subgroup within open source). And she confirms two other points about the realities of OSS: profits are a powerful motivators, and those talented enough to create community owned innovations want to share in those profits.

So for those of us whose wealth is this side of Mitch Kapor, we need a way to pay the bills. Good luck, Mary Lou — may your innovations have even more influence as commercial products than they have as a nonprofit social mission.

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