Microsoft's new Windows Vista may be pretty, and you'll probably buy it with your next computer. But some of the smartest people in the world won't touch proprietary software.
When MIT guru Nicholas Negroponte announced plans to create US$100 laptops for children around the world, he chose to use "open-source" software - programs created by collaborative effort and distributed for free.
Open-source is one of the Really Big Ideas in technology. It allowed Linus Torvalds, a student at the University of Helsinki, to make the Linux operating system a household word. He only trademarked the name to keep others from registering it.
Unless you're a geek, you probably don't run Linux on your desktop or laptop. But you're undoubtedly connected to a Linux system somehow, either on computers in your company's back office, or on the Internet.
Research firm IDC said, in August 2006, that "Linux servers now represent 12 per cent of all server revenue."
There's one huge problem with open-source. Where's the money? Sure there's profit in selling hardware bundled with software like Linux, and companies such as Red Hat managed to charge for training, support and manuals for open-source software. But it's pretty clear there won't be a Bill Gates or (Google co-founder) Sergey Brin gazillionaire emerging from the freebie software world.
Or is it?
Enter Michael ("MJ") Sikorsky and his little Calgary-based idea-fermenter called Cambrian House Inc. It's 50 or so people now, but Sikorsky claims Cambrian House is capable of "becoming the world's first billion-person company.”
He aims to harness the power of open-source development, while putting money into the hands of people with ideas and the expertise to make them happen.
He calls it "crowdsourced software" and compares it to YouTube and Wikipedia.
"If you think about all the mass collaboration that was occurring on the web," Sikorsky says, "the natural next step was to find a way to help people harness the wisdom and the participation of crowds.”
Through his website, people suggest ideas, no matter how wacky, and others react to them.
The company boasts a global "community" of about 10,000 members, who can join for free. To date, they've submitted almost 4,000 ideas for new software products that can be distributed over the Internet. Example: Pet Divorce Court, where "feuding couples or ex-couples would enter into a binding arbitration to decide by popular vote who will get the pet."
"My current favorite idea is called JumbleLunch," says Sikorsky. "It allows people who travel a lot to meet up with people in other cities for business networking. You might say, I'm going to be in Boston tomorrow and I don't have anyone to have lunch with, so I'd love to have lunch with another professional."
Cynics might say this is just a high-tech version of dropping in on the local Rotary club, but Sikorsky doesn't care. Cambrian House doesn't judge the ideas (except for removing "horribly offensive" ones.).
"We believe in the wisdom of the crowd," he says. "So, for example, if somebody posts an idea, someone else might point out that it's already been done, that there's nothing unique here."
In addition to commenting, community members can offer to write computer code to implement an idea, or to prepare creative materials for them. The idea's originator can accept these offers and dole out royalty points and glory points. Royalty points may actually translate into cash if the idea is a success.
"A whole bunch of cheques went out the other day," says Kathy Hnatiuk, also of Cambrian House. There's a venture capital side to this, too. Sikorsky says he's already raised $3 million "in an oil and gas town" to invest in the most popular ideas.
The three biggest success stories so far are robinhood fund.com, gwags.com and prezzle.com. Robinhoodfund is a website for people to post wishes and vote on the wishes of others. Wishes can be naughty or nice. "Funding a Trip to Build an Orphanage in Mozambique" was so popular that the wishee received $10,000.
Naughty wishes include "A Porsche - Because I Am Beautiful" ($175,000) and "An Evening with a Dozen Hookers and a Video Camera to Record It" ($10,000). Like some self-deluded contestants on Canadian Idol, these entreaties received lots of views but few positive votes.
Cambrian House has also spawned the website gwabs.com, which allows you to challenge fellow employees to "desktop combat.”
That will certainly do lots for business productivity. Prezzle.com lets you send an electronically wrapped giftcard from iTunes or Amazon by paying an extra 97 cents in "prezzle postage.”
Sikorsky says this venture has "done $55,000 in sales on that since it was developed, and Christmas was a phenomenal month for that brand."
Of course, the Achilles heel of Cambrian House is that everybody's ideas are out there, fully exposed, ripe for the picking. But Sikorsky doubts that idea theft will be a huge problem. He believes people are basically trustworthy, and the crowd's input will push ideas along quickly.
If your idea is appropriated, he says, "you've learned that you actually have good ideas, and should learn to execute them yourself.”
Michael Volker, founder of the Vancouver Angel Network which also invests in new ideas, likes Sikorsky's concept, "because it's an idea about ideas."
"You know," he muses, "I get calls all the time from people from all over the world saying they've got a great idea and all they need is a bit of money. I tell them ideas are a dime a dozen, but what you need, and I think this guy is moving in that direction, is people to work on the idea and to execute it."
Volker sees an interesting spin from a legal point of view. "Once you've disclosed your idea this way," he says, "you can't patent it in Canada. But you do have a one-year window to file a U.S. patent. So you could put up your idea, see what the crowd thinks about it, then run to the U.S. and file, and you'd have solid proof of the date of invention."
When asked about this strategy, Sikorsky laughs and says, "That's exactly what I would do if I had a good idea.”
But he probably won't be patenting the Cambrian House concept anytime soon.
"You can find an example of every single element of what our business is on the web," he says, "and a very successful one. What you can't find right now is someone who's tied together all the pieces the way we have."
(Tom Keenan is a professor at the University of Calgary and an expert on technology and its social implications. He can be reached at email@example.com)