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Last Updated: Monday, 22 January 2007, 17:21 GMT
Here comes the creator economy
Peter Day
By Peter Day
Presenter, BBC Radio 4 and BBC World Service

Houses of Parliament in London fog
The future of the internet is becoming clearer
In the same way that double-decker buses used to materialise out of the dimness of the London smog, shape and substance is being added to the affirmations made - back in the Web 1.0 era - that the internet was only the beginning of great big change.

I must confess that I have been parroting that observation myself for some time, without knowing exactly where things were going.

But change happens most surely when it is not pushed by one big development, but arises from an alignment of many smaller things.

For example, the Dotcom Bubble of the 1990s might not have burst so quickly and decisively - and burnt so many billions of other people's money - had internet users had access to widespread broadband connections.

The business plans floated on the theoretical supposition of everyday interactivity failed because the experience turned out to be so clunky when real home users tried it out on dial-up computers.

Five years later, broadband connections have revealed an internet experience that could only be dreamed of back in 1999. And that ease of use soon becomes the norm, the base on which new ideas are built.

There is of course nothing new about the open source computer software movement.

Corporate muscle

Many would argue that mass computing only began because of the competitive generosity among the members of the famous Homebrew Computer Club in Silicon Valley - a club of computer fans that dates back to the earliest days of the home computer in the 1970s.

Commodore home computer from 1983
Not too long ago a speedy web connection was unthinkable

But the corporates soon moved in, and protected with patents and shrink-wrapping what had been a great collaborative enterprise.

What the Finn Linus Torvalds did with Linux 16 years ago was to go some way towards restating the principles on which many of the advances of early computing were built. Along with others they created an operating system to rival Microsoft's proprietary Windows, opening the base code to everyone.

At first, revealing the basic secrets of software and allowing improvements and modifications looked more like a political act of anti-capitalism than the solid base for new advances in technology.

But the open source movement now seems to have reached a takeoff stage - helped, of course, by increasing bandwidth.

Even Microsoft is acknowledging its vitality.

Start-up boom

The result is an explosion of clever little businesses based on open source methods now springing up all over the USA and even Germany, it seems.

Examples almost at random are the Silicon Valley email and computer calendar company Zimbra, Open Xchange - a collaboration business based in New York state and Germany; the San Francisco web integration specialists ActiveGrid; the rare British open source company Alfresco which does global document management from Maidenhead in Berkshire.

There are also many companies - such as Platial of Portland, Oregon - who base their personal atlas on Google Earth maps, emphasising Google's benign role as a great gift to the open source movement.

Using collaborative work across continents, small companies are getting global distribution - and language translation - from Day One.

Most of them follow the open source dictates enough to provide the basic software free to users, making their money only from a minority of users - usually corporate ones - who insist on 24-hour backup and the latest accredited stuff.

They pay for it but only a fraction of what the great big proprietary companies charge for their licenses, it is claimed.

It is the same business model as the Voice Internet Protocol company Skype. Skype-to-Skype phone calls are free, and the company makes its revenues from cheap charges for calls to non-Skype phones by Skype users.

The open source people have the enthusiasm of early adopters, but many of them are serial entrepreneurs who have already made fortunes in the conventional proprietary world. They've seen the light.

Revolutionary thinking

Now it is obvious that something is happening, especially when you add into the Web 2.0 mix mash-ups often based on Google Earth maps, as well as the new fad of MySpace and YouTube and Second Life.

Microsoft founder Bill Gates giving a presentation
The internet has been the home of some big ideas

But what sort of revolution is it ?

It's big stuff says my wise futurist friend Paul Saffo - a long time resident in, and observer of, California's Silicon Valley.

He divides the 20th century economy into two long eras: 50 years of mass production where the worker was the centre of things and the time clock was the symbol of the age. Then as supply caught up with demand across the developed world, the consumer society with the credit card as the symbol.

But after those two 50-year eras, we're entering something else, just as the 21st century starts, says Paul Saffo.

This is the new age of the creator at the centre of things - not creative, he stresses, just creator.

Original ideas

The central actor now is the consumer as creator of his or her own world, and business better recognise that fast.

For example, a Google user is also creating usage information which - when aggregated - is a key part of the company's extraordinary success.

What we need now to replace the credit card is a symbol of the new age, of free-to-use internet search, of avatars and MySpaces and open sources. Paul has yet to find one, so he is open to ideas.

The future is still emerging from the smog.

Work in Progress is the title of this exploration of the big trends reshaping the world of work as we steam further into the 21st century; and it is a work in progress, influenced and defined by my encounters as I report on trends in business and organisations all over the world.


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