The Bazaar of Spectrum

In Eric S. Raymond’s fantastic book The Cathedral and The Bazaar he compared the way open source software is developed to a Bazaar and the way corporations developed their software to the regimented and controlled nature of a Cathedral. It is this uncontrolled, bazaar type mentality that has led to extraordinary advancement in everything from software to hardware to web applications and services in the open source world. The wide array of off-the-shelf tools that people around the world can freely use, tweak, and mold into whatever they are trying to build has lowered the barrier to innovation, and we see the results everyday in new products and services like Google, Slim Devices‘ line up of Linux powered audio equipment, Linksys networking devices, and new telephony services like Truphone.

The efficiencies and advantages of this open bazaar model of development can be seen even outside the world of software. Transposing the model onto the field of wireless communications reveals an extraordinary recurring pattern in the way that technology, not just software, can advance provided it is given the right catalyst.

When a small amount of spectrum was de-regulated in the 2.4 GHz band we suddenly saw groups of people around the world pooling their knowledge to create a number of new standard wireless protocols. Varied in their purposes, these included Bluetooth for short range device-to-device communications, WIFI technology built around interconnecting all of our portable computing devices to the internet, as well as other things like newer cordless phones and lesser known technologies like ZigBee. This development occurred quickly and involved an extremely diverse set of companies whom we would not normally associate with wireless communications. But given the open access to this spectrum the barrier was sufficiently lowered in order for them to get involved and bring their unique set of knowledge to an area which previously would have excluded them.

Shortly after the development of these technologies we saw a similar effect again – a mass influx of entrepreneurs, large businesses, and individuals all equally working to develop new ways of leveraging these new technologies for unique purposes of either personal interest or new business opportunities. We’ve seen a massive growth of devices such as Music players, Cameras, laptops, and phones which include Bluetooth, WIFI and sometimes both at the same time. With these new devices came new services – the growth of internet service in planes, trains and your local pub or coffee shop is a market previously non-existent prior to the introduction of WIFI. Expanding beyond basic internet service we are just seeing the beginning of new value added services that leverage the ubiquity of this access to provide such things as telephony services in a convenient and low-cost manner.

Open Source software development teaches us a great deal but probably the most fundamental thing of all is that when we, as a communal group of individuals, entrepreneurs, and businesses are given open access to innovate the results can be enormous.

In order to culture more of the great innovation we’ve seen here it is fundamental that, at least in the wireless communications space, the commons is provided with more open access to spectrum and this is why Larry Lessig’s message in the following video is so important. As he normally does, Larry sums up the message very clearly and I encourage everyone to take the 27 minutes it takes to hear it.