The turn of the year, and the evident turning of an era, offers a great time to see the success, and possible excesses, of the open source ideal with fresh eyes.
Lanier first came to prominence through virtual reality, which has become both more and less than he anticipated, through the interplay of commercial and open source models.
Lanier's VPL Research, created to commercialize his immersive 3D technology, went nowhere fast, and its patents were eventually acquired by Sun.
Yet non-commercial development kept his ideas alive, and elements are seen in such things as flight simulators and Second Life. There's an interplay between entrepreneurship and shared research, in other words, a balance Lanier feels deserves preservation.
I agree. It's wrong for open source advocates to see what we do as the only way toward progress, just as it's wrong for closed source executives to launch ideological attacks on us.
Lanier's point is that open source often ends up replicating what closed source has previously done, and he wonders where it innovates.
In fact it innovates all over, but mainly it enables innovation, as at Eclipse, whose shared development has become a platform for many great commercial toolsets.
Under the proprietary model Unix was going nowhere fast. As open source Linux has united the development of servers, desktops, and mobile platforms. It has enabled innovation on a broad front.
It's sometimes hard to define the boundary between what is, or should be shared, and what is, or should be owned. Lanier's point is that there is such a boundary, and he's right.
But ideologues on both sides will set this up, falsely, as some sort of Ayn Rand vs. Karl Marx cage match, and it's not that at all.
It's more of a town vs. gown dispute. There's a time for sharing and there's a time to strike out in a new, bold, possibly fatal direction.
The rise of open source is akin to that of the academy itself. Computer code has grown to the point where a shared store of knowledge, a central base, is necessary for innovation to continue.
But we should not confuse the base itself with the innovation we seek, any more than a library should be confused with a doctoral thesis. The library enables the thesis, but the thesis itself is always original.
Just as Jaron Lanier is an original, and a treasure to both the open source and the closed source virtual worlds.