Batman’s Utility Belt: Open Source meets Mass Customization

“Mass Customization is the ability of a company to meet each customer’s requirements-to prepare on a mass basis individually designed products, services, programs, and communications.”(Keller & Kotler 2006) Examples of mass customization include shoes and clothing made to size, custom blended cosmetics, and choose-your-own-topping pizza. This differs from the more traditional practice of providing product features that certain groups of customers seem to be asking for. In the more traditional approach features are included in some portion of a mass production run. In the mass customization approach a menu of potential features is offered and the customer can choose from that menu. The end product is the sum of standard and individually selected features. This might be specially sized clothing, different sized shoes for each foot, or a front door in blue with brushed nickel hardware.

Open Source Software goes beyond mass customization. I would describe the process as, more of a cross between, Batman’s Utility Belt and one of James Bond’s souped up cars or motorcycles. On the one hand, the utility belt has been custom produced. Bruce Wayne didn’t choose from a menu of off-the-shelf noxious gases and boomerangs. He thought about the situations he had been in in the past, anticipated future predicaments, and created potential solutions that he could neatly store in his utility belt until needed.

James Bond, on the other hand, was merely an end user. His custom-designed vehicle was produced by a group of engineers who had been directed by someone to provide the BMW (or whatever) with a bunch of nifty, utility-belt-like features. Bond just assumed that the features would come in handy if he randomly pressed a button or pulled a lever.

Putting aside the fictionality of Batman and James Bond for a moment, these scenarios are both a bit unrealistic. First of all, Batman, genius and jack-of-all-trades though he was, would hardly have had the time to invent all of these potions and devices by himself. It would have left precious little time for crime-fighting, let alone all the responsibilities of a “playboy industrialist”. Then there’s James Bond. He’s been in these life and death situations hundreds of times. Wouldn’t you think he would want some input into the process of creating his cars and secret weapons? With all the money it takes to create these gadgets, if I were the Parliament Oversight Committee, I would want to make sure my top secret agent would find these projects useful.

So how does this all relate to open-source software? Well, let’s say that there was more than one Batman. Perhaps cities other than Gotham might need a competent crime-fighter. Each of these Batman-types has found himself in a number of predicaments. After coming back to the Batcave after a successful outing each would probably log into the Batman User Group (BUG) to share experiences and try to work out solutions. Maybe the Gotham Batman was anticipating a run-in with a large radioactive deer tic. He finds that Metropolis Batman had been in a similar situation and had invented a special pair of tweezers. Gotham Batman could download the appropriate code and voila!

This experience becomes interactive and is driven by the need to solve actual problems with new and creative solutions. Any given Batman or hacker, at any given time might find himself facing a problem that the current computer program or utility belt selection will not solve. No one Batman or hacker has the time to do all of this by himself and neither can wait for a bureaucratic solution to become available. So the group process facilitates the creation of solutions.

There are important distinctions between this process and closed source processes. The closed-source process is centralized, much like the British Secret Service. They anticipate the consumers’ needs and make products to fit. Fortunately, in the case of James Bond, they have read the script and know what particular gadgets will prove to be most useful. In real life-not so simple. For a customer to participate in a mass customizing process his list of options is necessarily limited by a company’s predetermined menu. If you want Nike to sent you a left running shoe in size 10.5 and a right running shoe in size 11 that will work. If, however, you want them to have that left shoe accommodate the barnacle on your big toe, that goes beyond the scope.

The open-source process is decentralized. All of the Batmen have the information they need to solve any number of potential problems. Some Batmen will be better suited to tackle a new noxious gas concoction while another might be able to come up with a new retrofit so that the grappling hook will work on glass walls. Because the process is open, each Batman can build upon each other’s work in order to fine tune solutions or to come up with entirely new applications.

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