I recently picked up the book Wikinomics by Don Tapscott and Anthony Williams and... bought it. This was a slightly unusual move for me as I get most of my information on what’s happening on the web from Free Software Magazine and others like it covering new developments (the web being somewhat faster to press). Being the neophyte I am, I was hoping for it to be a great compendium on current developments in collaboration. And, while it is a useful book for anyone wanting to get a great introduction to how the free software movement is changing the economy, if you are looking for a revolution, it ain’t in the book.

Tapscott, known for his previous books on the digital economy, and Williams, who works with Tapscott at New Paradigm, a think tank and strategy consulting company, fell a little short in their effort to excite me about the wonder of the new world. Why? Even with my limited technical and free software knowledge, I was not surprised by anything in the book, i.e., it’s more about what’s happening now than what may be coming up (that’s why I like Ray Kurweil who doesn’t exactly hold back on his predictions). But, that being said, it is almost a must read for a business person who has yet to pay any attention to how the economy is being shifted beneath their feet. Large traditional companies like Proctor and Gamble are opening their proprietary gates to expose their inner sanctum to the world and if you don’t know that’re behind the times.

The book covers the usual history of free software development including Linus Torvalds and Linux; but also brings up some interesting stories of companies that jumped on the band wagon to forge the collaborative way. Toronto based Goldcorp was one such company. Goldcorp opened it’s geological data to the world in 2000 and essentially asked “where’s the gold?”. They launched a challenge with a financial prize and exposed their proprietary geological information to geologists from around the world who studied their 400MB of data and a told them where to find the treasure. Through this collaboration the geologists found the gold and the small underperforming GoldCorp is now “reaping the fruits of its open source approach to exploration”. Not only did the contest yield copious quantities of gold, but Goldcorp went from a $100 million company to a $9 billion leader in the industry. Pretty successful free software if you ask me.

Wikinomics has many stories like that and that’s one of the values in the book. Stories about Proctor and Gamble opening their patent library via to independent researchers and other companies, IBM adopting Linux, Wikipedia undermining the Encyclopedia Brittanica, Myspace’s social revolution,’s collaboration with its readers. But it also has less well known organizations who are pushing boundaries and creating new methods and uses of collaboration. is an online community for youth to access information and take action in their local and global communities. It is now the world’s most popular online community for young people interested in making a difference according to their website; i.e, this is a more serious site than Myspace. Others including InnoCentive, the Human Genome Project, Flickr, SecondLife, MIT’s Open Courseware project and illustrate the potential for new business models.

As I say above, the book succinctly covers the history of free software and then demonstrates how traditional companies have begun to open their IP to the free software model and are reaping vast rewards from all their dusty data. The book covers how small ideas can become global, how consumers are beginning to assume the role as designers of a company’s products, how healthcare can benefit from global and open research, how companies are implementing collaborative networks, protecting their shareholder value and changing the structure of the corporation.

All in all, this is a useful book and my only hesitation is that it somehow fails to find the underlying spirit of the free software movement, the Ubuntu so to speak and, in fact, never mentions either. It’s a light criticism, but I believe that the future will not be determined as much by the financial returns so highlighted in this book, but more by the energy and spirit of social change that is sweeping the world... and it’s that underlying energy that will transform business, not just its manifestation as collaboration.



Tyler's picture
Submitted by Tyler on

The usual history of Free Software includes the guy who started it all. Richard Stallman is barely mentioned in this book. Free Software is a lot more than the Linux kernel. I was particularly disappointed with the report that Linux was licensed under a General Public License so that it could be freely shared. To bring up the concept of the GPL without the context of GNU and the FSF is really disrespectful. It conveys the idea that it has always been possible to use a copyleft, Free Software license. A tremendous amount of time and energy went into developing that license, and building a community around it. The presentation in Wikinomics ignores all that, opting for the simpler story that Linus created it all from scratch.

Of course, the kernel is critical, and Linus' role in driving that project is very important. But RMS was there to get the ball rolling in terms of building a community. And while he may not be as active in writing new code today, his philosophy has inspired collaborative communities beyond the confines of computer programming. The founder of the Creative Commons, Larry Lessig, was inspired in large part by the Free Software movement. Much of what falls under the umbrella of wikinomics can be traced back, not to RMS, but to the Free Software community that he was instrumental in developing in the 80s.

This is where the 'open source' label really fails us. It makes it too easy to ignore the philosophical underpinnings of the community we belong to. I know GNU/Linux is an awkward mouthful, but if it was in common use then it would be much harder for people to define the start of Free Software as being the Linux kernel.


Anonymous visitor's picture
Submitted by Anonymous visitor (not verified) on

Thanks, so many pioneers get lost in the shuffle and shouldn't. Appreciate you making this known.

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Chris Holt specializes in consulting for Government and NGO public health and social services organizations about software to assist with case management and patient management systems.
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