(Originally posted on Applied Mechanics News on 2 May 2006)
A twelve-year old found a blueprint to assemble a computer in a magazine, and ordered parts on newegg.com, a website that listed parts from all vendors and comments on each part by customers. Both features were reassuring. When the parts arrived in mail a week or two later, the boy assembled the computer himself. In the process, he saved a substantial amount of money. He also learned a lot about computers, and about dealing with his parents.
The boy could do all these because computer parts are commodities, products that are produced by different companies but conforming to the same standards: all parts fit. Websites like newegg bring the parts from the companies directly to boys and girls of all ages, skipping middlemen like Dell.
Commoditization has also occurred in the software industry, largely due to the open-source movement that has produced the Linux operating system, as well as a large number of other software systems.
Can we also commoditize knowledge? This is precisely the mission of the Connexions Project, founded by the electrical engineer Richard Baraniuk, of Rice University, in 1999. The Project has been funded by the National Science Foundation and private donors, and has produced a system of software to enable anyone to author parts of knowledge (called modules). It also enables anyone to assemble parts into a functional product of knowledge (called a course), free of charge, under a Creative Commons open license. By January 2006, Connexions hosted over 2900 modules and 138 courses.
Connexions will likely have tremendous impact on the textbook industry, which has an annual revenue of 10 billion dollars in the US alone. The Project is also bringing free, up-to-date knowledge to developing countries, including North Karea.
Connexions will also likely to change the practice of scholarship. If you'd like to learn how Connexions works, you may visit the website of Connexions, or look at a course, or read a white paper written by the Connexions staff, or simply enjoy a video of an inspiring talk given by Professor Baraniuk to Google engineers.
Notes added on 15 July 2006. Wall Street Journal (13 July 2006) reported on Rice University's Press on line and print on demand.