Portrait: Eric von Hippel, user innovation, and FOSS


Author: Bruce Byfield

A common charge against free and open source software (FOSS) is that it lacks the ability to innovate. To that charge, the lifelong research of Eric von Hippel, professor and head of the Innovation and Entrepreneurship Group at the MIT Sloan School of Management, offers a thorough and scholarly refutation. Having studied the sources of innovation for more than three decades, von Hippel has found in FOSS both a confirmation and an elaboration of his ideas.


The traditional concept of innovation, defined by Joseph Schumpeter in 1934 in The Theory of Economic Development, is that manufacturers are the ones who develop new products for users. By contrast, von Hippel suggests that users can be a major source of innovation. In fact, in some cases, such as the construction of scientific instruments, users can be as responsible for as much as 80% of new products, although usually the percentage is much lower.

Von Hippel’s ideas began in his early teens, when his father, who was also a professor at MIT, used to drop him off on campus on the weekends to wander around. “One of the things I observed when I went into laboratories,” says von Hippel, “was that people were developing their own equipment. And, when I asked them why that was, the answer would be, ‘Well, the instrument makers wouldn’t understand what I need.'”

Looking back, von Hippel suggests two reasons for this attitude. First, as the adage suggests, by the time you explain what you want, you might as well have done the work yourself. Secondly, manufacturers were unwilling to bother with a unique product for a single user. And the same is largely true today. “Chemistry labs, engineering labs, biological labs — wherever you had to build an instrument to test new biological instruments, or, nowadays, nanotech instruments used to handle and test nano particles — these are all done by the scientists and engineers trying to make the measurements. They’re not done by equipment builders. And the point is, they know what they want.”

While most consumers simply put up with what manufacturers offer, von Hippel explains, “These people couldn’t just put up, because their needs were too advanced. So they became a special type of users that we call lead users. They’re ahead of a general market trend.”

Moreover, von Hippel observed that what lead users developed for themselves often become commercial products, “because, eventually, the manufacturers wake up” and realize that what the lead users want is eventually wanted by a much larger group of users than anyone anticipated.

Manufacturers do produce incremental improvements, but their innovations tends to be to existing products. For instance, manufacturers might produce the next generation of DRAM, “because everyone knows that the market for DRAM is there, and wants faster or more energy-efficient products. [Manufacturers’ innovations] can be major or minor, but they’re serving an existing market. But the people who create the market are the lead users.”

Enter FOSS

Those who have Eric S. Raymond’s The Cathedral and the Bazaar might notice a similarity between von Hippel’s concept of the lead user and Raymond’s statement that “Every good work of software starts by scratching a developer’s personal itch.” The difference, however, is that Raymond was writing in the late 1990s, while von Hippel began developing his initial insights in the 1970s, and summarized them in The Sources of Innovation in 1988. In other words, von Hippel anticipated the theoretical framework of FOSS by well over two decades.

However, von Hippel did not encounter FOSS himself until the late ’90s, when his grad student Karim R. Lakhami (now a professor at Harvard Business School) introduced him to it. “He was the one who came drifting in the door and said, ‘Hey, there’s this thing called open source software.’ And I said, ‘Holy cow!’ It was a brand new, wonderful thing. The Stallman stuff and everything was enormously impressive.”

Clearly, the FOSS movement was important evidence to support von Hippel’s theories. However, at the same time that von Hippel began studying projects such as Apache, Postgres, and Freenet, the growing success of FOSS gave him increased insight into user innovation.

From the example of FOSS, von Hippel developed the concept of a non-rival product. In a non-rival product, “the innovation is the design, not the physical making of it. I might make a pair of shoes, and you might say, ‘Wow, I want a pair like that,’ but you’d have to make your own pair of shoes, because I can share the design, but I can’t share the shoes. We both can’t wear the shoes at the same time. But in the case of an information product like Linux, you can share. Information is the product. What that means is that you and I can use it at the same time.”

Moreover, von Hippel says, “What open source taught us was that, with the Internet, collaboration pays, and that giving stuff away and collaborating, joining together to build something, was imporant to a lot of people. Like Linux. The work that we’re doing presently shows that this kind of collaborative open innovation actually economically dominates producer innovation. In other words, the kind of interactive activity that Linux represents is a better economic model under most conditions, and will drive the other one out” — attempts to favor manufacturer innovation via copyright, trademarks, patents, and preferred legislation notwithstanding.

At the same time, von Hippel’s research suggests that collaborative innovation like FOSS “actually increase social welfare,” by which he means that “it increases economic returns to individuals.”

Von Hippel suspects that “it’s also better in social terms,” although he acknowledges that “we haven’t measured that.” A “yet” may be implied at the end of that statement.

The future of user innovation

Von Hippel has relatively little contact with the FOSS business community — so little, in fact, that he was surprised to hear that he is cited as an authority by a growing number of executives in FOSS startups. For the most part, he prefers to stay in the realm of academic research. Yet, even there, his ideas reach a wider audience. For example, one of his current students is Benjamin Mako Hill, who is also a director of the Free Software Foundation, and his book Democratizing Innovation is available on his home page under a Creative Commons License.

However, von Hippel remains convinced that user innovation will continue to gain importance. Noting that, when hardware is being designed, it is as much an information product as software, he suggests that the next stage is increased collaborative innovation in hardware. He cites as an example Bug Labs, a company dedicated to products whose hardware is modular and can be assembled to meet users’ preferences, and whose software is also modifiable by users. “It’s like an electronic LEGO labs,” he says approvingly.

As von Hippel’s ideas begin to gain currency in both academic and business circles, it is starting to seem as though his lifework is itself an example of user innovation and he himself a lead user. His explanations of his early observations about the shortcomings of conventional economic theory are now not only beginning to become mainstream, but also a potential source for more collaborative innovation, especially in the FOSS community. While these connections are just beginning to make themselves felt, they seem a fitting and logical development to his life’s work.

Our Portraits series seeks to profile individuals who are doing interesting things with free and open source software. If you know of someone you’d like to read about, please let us know.


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