Breakthroughs and open source

The Economist has published an interesting article on the evolving nature of open source software, which is software open to inspection and improvement by many people. Its biggest advantage is that anyone can contribute code, its disadvantage, as the Economist says, is that anyone might. Still, some of the biggest applications, like Apache, which runs the majority of the Web servers, are open source. In another sense, Wikipedia, the online collaborative encyclopedia, is open source as well. And it gets more daily visitors than the New York Times.

But more interesting to me is open source as a creative method. Johnnie Moore says he's tired of open source being pigeonholed as risky, a view with which I agree. I think open source, in contrast to its image as barely controlled chaos, is rather methodical, plowing through a number of alternatives until something nearer an optimal solution is reached. In practice it's more and more like a meritocracy.

In the Economist piece, however, Steven Weber, a Berkeley political scientist and author of The Success of Open Source, takes its creative measure, asking if open source "do anything new," and suggesting that "Wikipedia is an assembly of already-known knowledge.” That's my question as well. Can it achieve breakthroughs? Is it supposed to?