More Tech Than They Know What to Do With

DARPA has taken a step toward wider availability of the open source software they sponsor: DARPA: Open Catalog. Most major technology companies (including Apple, Google, Intel, Microsoft, etc.) have open source software they use and maintain. And lots of other companies (e.g., automakers) have some level of involvement in open source, too.

Why? Where does this wide spread come from? Obviously the players keep and maintain other software on a proprietary basis (both licensed and in-house). They keep some software close and closed because of a competitive advantage. Other software stays closed because it would be no value to others.

And yet, some software remains closed purely because of the cost involved in opening it up. That typically involves having people (both engineers and lawyers, at least) look over the source, vet it, clean it up, package it for public consumption. Some of those efforts will fail, resulting in loss, due to coupling between unreleasable and releasable source.

How much technology is being lost? Is that not an economic concern and a harmful characteristic of monolithic firms in an economy? We lose benefits because of the inefficiency of large organizations that have more tech than they know what to do with.

It’s not as obviously bad as some high-profile failures where time and budget overruns of projects costing billions eventually led to them being scrapped and gods know what happened to the tech developed on the public dime.

But it still hurts, and may be far more costly in terms of our special development. It is akin to firms competing outside of their core competency: that large tech firms develop tech that could stand on its own as a business, but is at best used internally and at worst overlooked entirely because they have no strategy to deploy it widely.

Firms competing outside of their competency means that, e.g., two ice cream shops may not compete on product quality and other metrics, but on something as foreign to ice cream as their ability to exploit tax loopholes. That sort of competitiveness on general business acumen rather than on niche values leads to ugly distortions of information and inferior products with irregular pricing.

Technology’s most disruptive roles have come when new ideas were leveraged against existing problems in unexpected ways. The constituent technologies of the electronic nicotine vaporizer have existed for decades, but only recently were combined to tackle an existing problem.

But that sort of disruption requires that potential entrepreneurs know or at least can find out about viable technologies. With large technology firms, the pool of potential entrepreneurs is limited to employees, consultants, and partners that are aware of the technologies available. That is a far smaller pool than the general pool of potential entrepreneurs.

Moreover, the privileged information regarding costs and profits of existing industries may thwart analyses that would indicate entrance opportunities, even when the technologies are known. We need to open more than just a few projects here and there, if we are to unlock the true progress that economics offers us.