Distributed Innovation

There was a point, in the mid-90’s, when Microsoft started using some form of the word “Innovation” in every third paragraph that it produced. It was, not coincidentally, around the same time that it became clear that Microsoft not innovating at all. It’s not such a big stretch to draw parallels with the current US regime’s* use of the words “peace”, “democracy” and “freedom” to refer to its repressive military operations around the world.

But I digress. If innovation isn’t happening at Microsoft, and yet cool stuff still happens daily on the web, where is this innovation coming from?

Increasingly it’s coming from consumers – amateur hackers finding ways to mix and match the data that is available in the swelling online pool of information, such that the whole is greater than the sum of its parts. As information becomes more structured and its representations more standardised (no thanks to Microsoft), the utility of that information (both finding it and using it) increases rapidly. Think of sites such as technorati, del.icio.us, flickr, geourl – online tools that allow communities of users to enhance online data with meaningful “tags”. Their features have been rapidly integrated into personal publishing solutions such as WordPress and Movable Type so that a lot of the new content that is generated on the web automatically has semantic metadata associated with it, and in addition that information is available for republishing in an intelligent and efficient way.

A recent example of the speed of collaborative web development is Google Sitemaps. Around the 3rd of June, Google released Sitemaps, a specification which allows web sites to tell Google which pages have changed on their site, which in turn allows for more efficient indexing. By the 4th of June, WordPress and Movable Type had both integrated this feature into their engines.

In another example of users “embracing and remixing” rich web data, the BBC noticed that certain users were ripping and enhancing their content without permission, and so decided to create official web APIs to enable the entire world to access their back-end archive of raw resources and republish BBC content. In the very short time since they have made this information available they have been blown away by the enthusiasm and scale of the development efforts that have sprung up.

So, when you think of capital-I Innovation, what do you think of first? A company that has shrouded its file formats in secrecy to protect its creaking business model from inevitable collapse? Or the efforts of forward-thinking organisations like Google and the BBC, combined with backroom inventors spread around the world, plugging together information in new ways to build the next generation of this diabolical machine we call “The Web”?

* In the interests of appearing fair and balanced, I’ve started using “regime” to refer to all governments