Proprietary Value From An Open Standard

On a recent episode of MergeNow, Ed Niedermeyer interviewed Jon Mullen of RightHook, an autonomous vehicle simulation startup. I worked with Jon at Ford, so I was particularly interested.

Jon was on the show describing ScenarioScript, “an open format scenario-describing language.” Think of ScenarioScript as a format for describing traffic scenarios for autonomous vehicles, including variables like weather, road dimensions, and other relevant parameters.

Early in the show, Ed asked Jon if the release of ScenarioScript is an attempt to move everyone onto RightHook’s ecosystem. Jon said that was not the case, and it’s worth listening yourself to hear why and decide whether you believe that.

What struck me, though, was the question of whether and why it ever would be remunerative for a company to move the world onto its chosen open-source ecosystem.

The best example I can think of this is Bell Labs, where Unix, C, and C++ were invented, along with lots of other things. Bell Labs seems to me to be understudied — the Wikipedia section on Nobel Prizes and Turing Awards is tremendous and must outstrip any other non-university in the world, certainly any for-profit entity.

But it’s less clear how much Bell (later AT&T, and now Nokia) benefited from these inventions. At the very least, the through-line from open-source creation to corporate profit requires some thinking.

Another, smaller, example is Willow Garage, the technology incubator that at one time maintained ROS, OpenCV, and PCL. All of those projects have been critical for self-driving car development, and robotics more generally. But Willow Garage dissolved as an entity in 2014.

The list could keep going. The success of Java was, at least, insufficient to prop up SUN. JavaScript didn’t save Netscape, or its eventual acquirer, AOL.

Perhaps the most prominent counterexample is Android, which has made Google lots of money (I think) via Google Play commissions on apps.

Other companies are centered around developing hosting and services for a particular open-source project. MongoDB Inc. does this for MongoDB, Elastic does this for Elasticsearch, and Databricks does this for Apache Spark. All of these companies have been quite successful, but in the long run, Amazon Web Services and other cloud providers look like real threats.

Looking over this list, I actually think the invention of JavaScript at Netscape is the most instructive. JavaScript was transformational for the browser industry, and the Internet generally. But the open-source nature of the tool may have limited the value that Netscape specifically was able to capture.

A similar case might pertain to Unix, C, and C++ at Bell Labs.

These tools were a tremendous benefit to the entire industry, and perhaps helped Netscape and Bell at the expense of alternative (TV and postal mail, respectively?). However, the benefit accrued to the entire industry, not only to the company that invented to the technology.

To bring this full circle, if you go back and listen to Jon Mullen’s rationale for open-sourcing ScenarioScript, that’s what he says 😉

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