It's often said that open source doesn't innovate. It imitates. That's certainly what the proprietary software industry would have you believe. And to look at the activity in some of the most prominent open source projects in use in enterprises today, it's tempting to agree.
For example, although open source databases are incredibly popular for all kinds of mission-critical applications, neither MySQL or PostgreSQL is really doing anything that IBM, Microsoft, Oracle, and Sybase haven't been doing for years. Similarly, the OpenOffice.org productivity suite is an impressive example of community-driven development, and yet it's only real purpose is to create a free, standards-based clone of Microsoft Office. Even Linux itself is an attempt to rewrite Unix as free software.
But none of this discounts the fact that open source has blazed a trail or two of its own rather than simply following the pack. The Apache Web server is a prime example. Apache has been the Web's server of choice since it was forked from the National Center for Supercomputing Applications' httpd in 1995. According to Netcraft, the Web site and server barometer, 62 percent of all Internet Web sites run Apache today, compared with 31 percent running Microsoft IIS (Internet Information Server).
As Microsoft's Internet Explorer demonstrates, however, mere popularity isn't a measure of first-rate performance. Apache is most often the default Web server installed on most Linux servers, but its success isn't simply due to familiarity or lack of competition. Rather, it offers stability, high performance, a stellar security record, and an impressive array of features and extensions that give it many more capabilities than its commercial competitors. Apache effectively created the market for Web server software and continues to lead the way. In five years' time, IIS will no doubt be around in one form or another, but Apache will still lead the pack, pushing the envelope of what a Web server can do.
So was Apache a fluke? Is it the lone case where the open source community was able to anticipate demand for a product before proprietary vendors could implement it? Hardly.
Across the software industry, countless developers, individuals, and companies are experimenting with open source methods. One reason is because community-driven development allows a software product to grow organically. As Eric S. Raymond observed in his seminal work, The Cathedral and the Bazaar, "Every good work of software starts by scratching a developer's personal itch." When a group of developers begins to collaborate in an open fashion, each one scratching a unique personal itch, the result is software that expands to fill those functional areas not addressed by proprietary offerings.