Innovation by User Communities: Learning From Open-Source Software

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Imagine product development without manufacturers. Today’s user innovation communities are making that idea increasingly real. Open-source software projects, among others, have led to innovation, development and consumption communities run completely by and for users. Such communities have a great advantage over the manufacturer-centered development systems that have been the mainstay of commerce for hundreds of years. Each using entity, whether an individual or a corporation, is able to create exactly what it wants without requiring a manufacturer to act as its agent. Individual users in a user innovation community do not have to develop everything they need on their own but can benefit from others’ freely shared innovations.

Examples of User Innovation Communities

User innovation communities existed long before the advent of open-source software and extend far beyond it. They are not limited to information products such as software code. Some develop physical products. Consider and compare two examples of early-stage user innovation communities — one in software, the other in sports.

Apache Open-Source Software

Apache open-source software is used on Web server computers that host Web pages and provide appropriate content as requested by Internet browsers. Such computers are the backbone of the World Wide Web.

The server software that evolved into Apache was developed by Rob McCool (at that time a University of Illinois student) for, and while working at, the National Center for Supercomputing Applications (NCSA). The source code as developed and periodically modified by McCool was posted on the Web so that users at other sites could download, use, and further modify and develop it.

When McCool departed NCSA in mid-1994, a small group of webmasters who had adopted his server software for their own sites decided to continue developing it. Eight users gathered all the documentation and bug fixes and issued a consolidated patch. This “patchy” server software evolved over time into Apache. Extensive user feedback and modification yielded Apache 1.0, released on Dec. 1, 1995.

After four years and many modifications and improvements contributed by many users, Apache became the most popular Web server software on the Internet, garnering many industry awards for excellence. Despite strong competition from commercial software developers such as Microsoft Corp. and Netscape, it is currently used by approximately 60% of the millions of Web sites worldwide.

High-Performance Windsurfing

High-performance wind-surfing, the evolution of which was documented by MIT doctoral candidate Sonali Shah in a March 2000 MIT Sloan working paper (


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