Friday, March 21, 2008

Supercar With A Difference?

Iconic Motors sportscarFor those of you who don't know, I work in software. I build things in bits and bytes - things people need to make their computers do useful things. Not hugely useful, I grant you, but that doesn't really matter. The point is, I spend most of my time working with software products and platforms which are dubbed "open source".

For the uninitiated, the term open source refers to the licensing of a software product. Open source software is free to download and yours to edit, unlike software from, say, Microsoft, which must be purchased (usually for approximately the cost of one arm and one leg... or your grandmother) and you cannot edit or change in any way beyond the means prescribed to you by Microsoft.

The grander scheme is open source software evolves and is developed by the people and businesses which use it on a day-to-day basis. They don't like something? They take it out. Enough people don't like it, it ceases to be an option. Want it to do something it doesn't? Then add it in. If enough people think it's a good addition, it will become standard.

But who decides? Usually a panel, company or individual, known as the "project maintainer", whose role it is to listen to the case from the community at large and decide what the next version of the product will do, in it's default form, when it is released. What will be kept, what will be dropped, what will be changed, all falls on the shoulders of the maintainer. And of course, if your idea is dropped, well, that doesn't really matter. You can still add it to your version.

It's all very idyllic sounding, but you know what the best bit is? It actually works. Not for nothing does the majority of the Internet run on open source-based software. A coincidence, it is not, that half the governments in South America are moving exclusively to open source software. (Though Mr Bush's old friend Chavez has a finger in that pie, I'm sure. Persuading most of an entire continent to ditch one of America's biggest companies is surely one in the eye for Uncle Sam.)

And now the Dutch are following suit. Which means the rest of Europe is probably only about 10 years away, and interestingly my father (who works in local government, of sorts, here in the UK) is already receiving newsletters from on high about the benefits of open source software within industry and government. Remarkably sharp for the British government, who tend to react to change with the grace and poise of a fully laden super-tanker.

But what on Earth has this all got to do with motoring, classic or otherwise? Not a lot... until this morning. My eyebrows touched the ceiling when I opened an email from a small, US-based sportscar company called Iconic Motors, for two reasons:

Firstly, I (little old me) have been invited to the New York Auto Show at 7pm tomorrow, all expenses paid (except flight and hotel - the expensive bits), as their guest. (Someone should point out it wouldn't hurt to give small-time, London-based motoring bloggers a little more than 24 hours notice for a motor show in New York. Clarkson, I am not.) I can only think they are assuming no one is going to come, so they're inviting every amateur motoring journalist in the world to turn up in the hopes a handful do.

Secondly, Iconic make the grand claim of producing the world's first "open source" car:

Iconic’s not just a little company making 100 very special supercars. We’re making supercars a new way: Open Source design, based on Joy's Law:

The best person for your biggest challenge doesn't work for your company.

I've been a computer guy all my life, with Digital Equipment and as an Oracle VAR, etc. Whether you’re a fan of cars or the internet, you'll love this collaboration.

The Iconic Motors Collaborative Design Initiative (CDI) will be a continuing conversation about the best way to conceive, equip and produce cars right here in America, using the very best suppliers: little companies that normally serve the space and aeronautical industry and the people who custom-build race cars.

And we'd love for you to contribute your own ideas! Using DIGG-like polling, we'll float the best ideas to the top - you will, not me. If one of your ideas wins, you'll be rewarded monetarily and recognized publicly.

So there you have it. This must be my perfect car, as I'm a fan of both cars and the Internet. I should be in seventh heaven as Iconic present themselves as the "maintainers" of an open source supercar, to which anyone can contribute and contributions are welcomed. The trouble is, I'm not.

Here's the thing. An open source project is only as good as the quality of the community contributing. Some open source projects attract super-genii by the bucket load and shoot off in to the stratosphere, surpassing anything even the biggest production budget can conjure up. Look at the Apache web server for a case in point - unbeknownst to the gazzillions of Internet users, this piece of software is open source, free and practically runs the Internet. Others attract a bunch of ill-informed and over-opinionated college kids, exist for as long as afforementioned kids have nothing better to do and then fall down like a sack of spuds.

The Iconic looks more like the latter. For a kick off, it looks like the bastard result of a sordid affair between an AC Cobra and a riced-up Vauxhall Corsa, which leads me to the obvious conclusion the project is yet to attract a designer of any calibre, which is pretty serious when you're trying to sell a six-figure "supercar". It doesn't exactly inspire confidence in the rest of the car either. What else have they borrowed and subsequently mangled to produce this strange looking contraption?

There are a fistful of interesting performance statistics and design notes at the foot of each page, including "Formula One-Derived Racing Suspension" (I sincerely bloody hope not, or anyone who buys one of these things will have no teeth left by the time they get to the end of the block) but all this means nothing. All I'm looking at is an ugly and expensive Cobra replica. I can think of no reason why I would select this over a more faithful copy of the original AC/Shelby collaboration.

Not a great start, if first impressions last, but where Iconic really fall down is in their entire ethos. They attempt to claim this is somehow a community effort and enthuse people to get involved, but let's think about that for a second. To quote Wikipedia:
Open source is a set of principles and practices on how to write software, the most important of which is that the source code is openly available.
Oops. That pretty much makes the Iconic Motors Collaborative Design Initiative dead in the water then.

You see, it's easy for me to sit here and pick holes in a few pictures and facts on a marketing website, but if this were a truly open source project, I'd have an Iconic sitting outside my house. I'd trundle outside, right now, with a tub of filler and an angle grinder and get rid of that stupid skirt they've put on it. Then I'd probably plug my laptop in to the engine management system (because, surely, they've provided me with the appropriate callibration software - for free) and start fiddling with the tick-over rate so my girlfriend doesn't stall it every time the lights turn green. I might even fit an ejector seat. That would be fun!

But I can't. They only plan to make 100 pieces and I am extremely unlikely to ever be able to afford one, and since it was apparently designed by a fifteen-year-old boy, I don't want one anyway. And I bet Joe Boffin in Idaho who contributed to the brake design isn't going to get a brand new Iconic for his troubles either. And there's the problem. In fact, Joe Boffin in Idaho probably knew this, so he didn't even bother to even take part. He made his own aeroplane out of a washing machine and a surf board instead, just for the hell of it.

To call this an "open source" car is a total misrepresentation of what open source is about. This is no more open source than Microsoft Windows, because the contributors will never, ever be able to try out their ideas, say "hey, this works guys!" and give it back. They'll be reduced to firing suggestions at a website in the hopes one of them sticks, just like Microsoft customers.

And who'll do that? A bunch of bored teenagers in computer class, that's who. Everyone else knows that firing ideas at the likes of Microsoft is a waste of energy. The only person who will actually be listened to in the R&D process is the guy with the cheque book.

Then there's the other fundamental problem. Open source is all about the people who use something informing it's development. If you're building an expensive supercar, it is utterly flawed to ask a bunch of people who will, in all likelihood, never even sit in a supercar, never mind own one, to help design one. And it would be commercial suicide to actually listen to them. It's a bit like asking a Maasai warrior to design some hiking boots.

So all this rather begs the question, is it really possible to have an open source car? Not in the truest sense, no, but there are other cars which come much closer to the true spirit of open source than the Iconic. Ladies and gentlemen, may I present the Lotus Seven.

Produced since 1957 and still going strong under the watchful eye of likes of Westfield and Caterham, the Seven is about as open source as you can get. It has always been a kit and you can do as much or as little as you want with it. You can buy a basic, ready-to-roll Seven from Caterham for a shade over £10,000 ($20,000), which is akin to buying Linux from Redhat - you could make it yourself, but you really can't be bothered.

Or you can buy a chassis and some rudimentary bits from Westfield for £2,000 ($4,000) and do the rest yourself, sourcing your own engine and running gear from an old Ford, pulling seats from the back of your mother's sedan and making your own body out of chicken-wire and PVA.

A strong community exists in the form of a number of rabidly enthusiastic owner's clubs who are forever sharing their personal experiences and modifications with great pride. And sometimes, just occassionally, the "maintainers" will use someone's modifications in their own models. And if they don't use your chicken-wire-crafted inspirations? Who cares! You love your Seven just the way it is.

While you'll never get a car for free, the Seven is very affordable, fun, fast, has a real community and allows you to truly build your own car, to your own specifications from a set of core components provided by the product maintainers, the chassis manufacturers and kit builders. If it's open source cars you want, forget the Iconic. Look no further than another Chapman classic.

Well, I'll probably never, ever be invited anywhere again by a small motor company. Damn. If only I'd headed straight for New York, met the CEO and written a glowing review, like Clarkson said I should. I could've been a motoring journalist by this time next week.

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