The GNOME census reported that while Red Hat contributes 16% of the upstream changes to GNOME, Canonical only contributes about 1%. Naturally, this has triggered an epic flame war, with Red Hat partisans arguing that Ubuntu is building its success off Red Hat’s work, while Ubuntu partisans argue that Ubuntu has succeeded in popularizing the Linux desktop in way that Red Hat has failed to do.
Actually, this isn’t at all surprising. What people frequently fail to understand is that the person who invents a technology is frequently less important than the person who popularizes it. Apple is an excellent example of this. There were digital audio players, smart phones, and tablet computers before Apple released their own versions of the products, but Apple popularized the concept, especially with the iPod, and made enormous profits of it. And this pattern has repeated throughout technological history. Henry Ford didn’t invent the automobile, he just mass-produced it – but he gets remembered for it. And look at Thomas Edison and Nikola Tesla.
And this just infuriates scientists, engineers, and other left-brained types, which is why the Red Hat/Ubuntu arguments get so sharp. For scientists and engineers prize logic and order, and in a logical, orderly world, the people who make the discoveries and build the inventions would get the credit, the money, and the women. But humanity is not logical and orderly – it is irrational, chaotic, and emotional, a fact which no amount of social engineering or education will ever change. And so the vision of the popularizer is frequently more important, and more lucrative, than the vision of the inventor. The popularizer is also necessary – for without his desire for money and power, the inventory might never get used or recognized at all.
It’s not fair, or even just, but that’s the way it works.
UPDATE: A roughly congruent example, though you can see the programmers attempting to become their own popularizers.