28 October, 2007

On vision and Future

The talk I gave at the Dutch Ubuntu Release party marked a point in time where my thoughts about the Vision and Future of KDE have become solid enough to write about them. Of course, many have preceded me - like Aaron, Troy and Wade. And I have been greatly influenced by my research in the area of Social Innovation and Open Innovation at the Dutch research institute TNO. So this doesn't come out of nowhere at all, I've just merged and aligned these different ideas somewhat.

This image by Wade is quite true. Even though a community generally doesn't have the focus a company can enforce from its employees, KDE has a vision. We want to go somewhere, as a community. Not everyone has the same ideas, sure. But out of all these different individuals and sub-communities within KDE, with their own opinions, plans and roadmaps, a big picture appears.

I don't claim I can express exactly what KDE wants for the future - I'm just a member of this community. I have my own ideas, and I'm influenced by my own knowledge about many things - or lack there off. But ideas grow. What KDE is growing into might never have been imagined by anyone who started on this journey. Yet I think the implications of it can be quite clear.

The most simple incarnation of the plan for KDE 4 is "improving our framework". It means we are going to make the KDE libraries better. Add new functionality, improve the existing stuff.

Aaron Seigo has been more verbose, speaking about making it easier to join KDE, to attract new developers. By improving documentation (techbase), but also by making KDE technology available to more people. It is one of the main ideas behind the development of Plasma, a new widget-based framework which replaces the desktop and panels in KDE 4. It is easy to develop for plasma, because it offers a lot of high-level functionality. Without having to worry about the complexities of data gathering, the writer of an applet can focus on the representation - so more bright ideas can be expanded upon. Meanwhile Kross, the new library in KDE 4, allows application developers to support more than just one language for writing extensions and plugins. If you're not fluent in Python, you can use Javascript, or Ruby... The result is more people can contribute - which leads to more innovation.

Innovation is one of my biggest interests (professionally as well as personal), and I have always enjoyed the innovative culture in KDE. We're open to ideas, very open. Of course, this is a property of most F/OSS projects, Raymond knew that already. This has been noticed in management circles too.

So, there's a new management trend in town: Open Innovation. Around the world, MT's are trying to figure out how to take advantage of it. Open Innovation is about opening up to and working closely with customers and suppliers to facilitate innovation and new ideas.

And it works. FOSS has proven to be not just a superior development model for software, but the freedom is also conductive to innovation. Of course, this is what every good open source project does. We're a natural at that.

But we are doing more. Yes, the work by Aaron (and many others) makes it easier to contribute. The improvements to the KDE libraries, and the support for more and easier languages to write full applications in does the same. Yet, there is another big thing coming which will help us to become more innovative: The Pillars of KDE 4. These new technologies we are introducing in KDE 4 like Decibel (communication), Phonon (multimedia) and Akonadi (PIM data) will increase our innovative capacity. Which is, to quote myself: "the capacity of an organization to generate and use ideas (inventions) to perform effectively" [1].

What is an invention? It's simple. Inventions are the connection of existing ideas and technologies into a new one. Now imagine. Providing people with bright ideas with incredibly powerful, high level components they can connect and combine in any way they want - all this within an atmosphere highly conductive to innovation. No management, nobody telling you what to do, no paperwork. No limitations.

See where this is going? We are creating a perfect opportunity for the Free Desktop to leap ahead of the competition. Apple and Microsoft won't be able to keep up with us... Ever.

Does every KDE developer realize the full potential of this? Not all of them, maybe. But you'd be surprised how many grasp at least a big part of this future. And not only our own people, but the Free Software community at large is aware something big is going on. We're already the second-largest FOSS project, but we're growing like crazy - new developers join us almost daily.

High expectations for KDE 4. No, not for 4.0 - I think most people already understand 4.0 will just be the beginning. Not terribly stable. Nor fully complete. But it will have these foundations in place and it will enable us to start innovating.

Boy, am I looking forward to the future!

[1] my unfinished paper about "The effect of psychological safety and climate for initiative on the effectiveness of explorative and exploitative innovation" (translated).