We've discovered a lot of great ideas here at The Economist Innovation Conference in Berkeley, California. Pixar's President spoke on how the company creates great films and Paola Antonelli of the Museum of Modern Art (MoMA) discussed the history of the @ symbol, among other presentations and workshops.
Now one of the biggest forces in social media, founder of WordPress Matt Mullenweg, has taken the stage to speak about the open source movement, the origins of WordPress, and how it has fostered innovation.
Open Source and the Origins of WordPress
Mullenweg opened by remarking that open source is not about technology, but about people. He focused a little on the history of open source — he believes it started in 1984 at MIT. Since then, there has been a slow transformation of how we view software, from proprietary to free and open-source. The birth of Linux() was one of the major turning points for open source.
WordPress's founder then focused on his own story of starting WordPress: he didn't build the software from the ground-up, but looked to the open source software that he was using at that time to blog. That software was b2/cafelog. When he and his partner Ryan Boren realized that it was abandoned, they decided to build on top of it to create a better open source blog software, the beginnings of WordPress.
A few years after he built WordPress, he built the company that now surrounds it: Automattic. The Automattic empire not only includes WordPress and WordPress.com, but Gravatar(), Akismet, blo.gs, IntenseDebate, and PollDaddy. He also built his company to be an international, telecommuting company, because he wanted to get the best talent, no matter where they were. In fact, only six WordPress employees are in the Bay Area.
Software Has Changed
Software design has fundamentally changed, Mullengweg said. There is no such thing as a "killer feature" anymore because of extensions and plug-ins — if an app like Firefox() or WordPress doesn't have the feature you want, you can add it with an API or a plug-in. It means that everybody has a different, unique version of WordPress, and thus it changes how he builds on his platform.
The audience got a chance to ask questions; the big one was about how WordPress makes money. The answer: Back-up services, hosting, anti-spam, and other paid upgrades make the majority of revenues. While not many users buy these features, when you have millions of users it adds up. He also is happy that its revenue model isn't overwhelming its users.
Overall, Matt Mullenweg is one of the biggest and most prominent proponents of open source. It promotes innovation because it allows developers to share ideas and code to build better ideas for less of a cost. WordPress's founder said that the city of San Francisco this year will spend more on software than WordPress has spent in its entire time of existence. He hopes that eventually that kind of spending will go away as open source becomes a more integral component of our lives.
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