Since this site is read by a global audience of programmers, I want to know if people generally agree that the vast majority of software innovation - languages, OS, tools, methodologies, books, etc. - still originates from the USA, Canada, and the EU. I can think of a few exceptions, e.g. Nginx webserver from Russia and the Ruby language from Japan, but overwhelmingly, the software I use and encounter daily is from North America and the EU.

  • Why? Is history and historical momentum (computing having started in USA and Europe) still driving the industry? And/or, is some nebulous (or real) cultural difference discouraging software innovation abroad?
  • Or are those of us in the West simply ignorant of real software innovation going on in Asia, South America, Eastern Europe, etc.?
  • When, if ever, might the centers of innovation move out of the West?
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    flamebait, voting to close. Feb 16 '11 at 19:27
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    I'm welcoming contrary opinions and specifically mentioned that it could just be ignorance on my part, so not sure why offense would be taken.
    – limist
    Feb 16 '11 at 19:43
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    @Paul I think it's a fair question. Feb 16 '11 at 21:47
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    I guess, but if there's any place on the Web where you can discuss stuff like this without it degenerating into a racist free-for-all, it's here and only here. Feb 16 '11 at 21:53
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    @Paul: I'd welcome an explanation as to why the question is "flamebait", "super provocative" or not "professional". So far no one has tried to argue against the observation behind the question. Also, the tacit assumption - and certainly my own belief - is that people around the world are comparable in intelligence, drive, and competence.
    – limist
    Feb 16 '11 at 22:24

11 Answers 11


As a Japanese person myself, I'll admit that there are a lot of cultural factors that make countries like Japan less competitive in the software industry.

One problem is that most Japanese companies devote significantly more resources to marketing than a typical US company would. Anything that doesn't produce immediate value gets shot down by managers, especially nowadays with the "kaizen philosophy" of the 70s and 80s being replaced with a new buzzword, "keihi sakugen", or cost-cutting. Intangible projects like middleware and libraries are particularly scarce and vulnerable to being slashed by myopic managers.

A lot of the impressive research, for instance in the fields of computer vision and robotics, tends not to get anywhere because they create extremely elaborate proof-of-concept projects that take up all their time and serve no purpose other than to impress laypeople watching TV. Take Honda's violin-playing robot, for instance, which undoubtedly proves a smaller point than IBM's Jeopardy algorithm, despite taking much longer to build.

(Edit 3: As if to prove my point, Japan is sending a Twittering, talking, emoting humanoid robot into space to talk to the Space Station crew. The EU or US would be just as happy with a text-to-speech RSS/Twitter feed reader with maybe :) and :( screen icons to indicate emotion and >:| to indicate a robot apocalypse.)

They also don't seem to embrace the concept of code reuse; unless it's a packaged platform, most Japanese programmers I've seen tend to reinvent the wheel quite often. Given proprietary software and a reusable alternative, they'll usually take the proprietary option. They also aren't very keen on standards or open protocols. Take Sony in the 1990s for instance, before Howard Stringer took over.

Japanese companies are also stingy about intellectual property, which you'll notice if you've ever tried to find Japanese music on YouTube -- rather than opting for ad income, most Japanese publishers just disable the offending video. Heck, when I was 14, I reinvented bucket sort thinking I'd stumbled upon something new, and my parents got completely upset with me when I insisted that patenting sorting algorithms isn't a good idea.

This attitude is completely ingrained in Japanese culture. Many, if not most, will go so far as to censor the names of other products or other people, even when there's nothing negative being said, and even though there's no law that necessitates this.

The language barrier is also an issue. Most Japanese people speak a tiny bit of broken Engrish, but most of the programming community's content is in rather difficult English -- so naturally they have less information to keep up to date with or to make good entrepreneurial decisions with. The English education in Japan is notoriously ineffective, with constant calls for reform generally leading to even worse curricula.

Edit 1: Forgot to mention, the Japanese value seniority, so most people of authority are in their 50s, 60s, even 70s -- and most of them hardly know how to use a mouse.

One positive thing I have to say though is that in a sense most Japanese products are very user-centric, so Japanese UIs, aside from being horribly non-standard, are quite intuitive and usable. Nintendo's work is a good example of this, though even most freeware tends to be quite good in this regard.

Edit 2: In general, the Japanese have no faith in software. They'd rather have more hardware than more software. Given a choice between buying an iPhone or buying a generic phone and an iPod, they'll usually choose the latter, even if it takes more pocket space and costs a lot more. In a typical Japanese home you might find a fax machine, a printer, a scanner, a few game consoles, a Blu-Ray player atop their PS3, one or two HDTVs, one phone per person, and a lonely laptop collecting dust. As a result, most of my Japanese friends in their 20s and 30s are as computer illiterate as the North Americans or Koreans of my parents' generation.

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    I appreciate the self-deprecation, but it seems to me that Japan's per capita contribution to software innovation is actually quite high. Its contribution to gaming alone is shocking. Add to that the compulsion to extend mobile phone abilities, robotic software, and cool tools like Ruby and Tokyo Cabinet/Tyrant and you can't help but be impressed. It may not be the OP's OSes, methodologies, and books, but it's a lot of output regardless. Feb 16 '11 at 21:27
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    Japan tends to produce a lot of applications, including games, but because applications can't really be extended, I don't think it really count as innovation, especially if the new techniques used in the applications are patented or ill-documented. Take Winny/WinMX/Share/Perfect Dark for instance, which are all Japanese P2P sharing programs. They offer some impressive ideas, but as soon as a buffer overflow is found in one program, they have no option but to rewrite new ones from scratch -- hence the four programs. Feb 16 '11 at 21:34
  • @Rei Miyasaka - Thanks for the follow up. I see the distinction. Sounds like a cautionary tale for innovative economies. Feb 16 '11 at 21:40
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    As for phones, I have a beef with phones, because the phone industry cannibalized the PDA industry. It really should have been the other way around, again, because PDAs allow for innovation in software rather than in hardware. My PocketPC2002 could do everything that the latest Androids can do, except obviously making calls and taking photos. Between 2003 and 2008 the mobile industry was really quite dead in terms of innovation save for miniaturization. And yes, during that time, Japan had the lead in phones, but now that phones look like PDAs again, did it matter at all? Feb 16 '11 at 21:42
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    @Rei Miyasaka: Pocket electronic devices were going to converge; the only question was who the winners and losers were going to be. As it turned out, Apple added PDA functionality to their music player and added a phone for some models, and everybody either played catchup or became irrelevant. Palm basically threw away its market opportunities. Feb 17 '11 at 21:22

Other than a few anomalies, a map of technical innovation looks a lot like a GDP map. My conclusion is that innovation follows money. As economies grow in India and China, I'm sure we can expect more innovation from them.

This makes sense. Large economies tend to have:

  • Extra money to invest and speculate on innovation
  • Laws that protect said investments including laws that protect intellectual property
  • A culture that encourages everyone, even if you're not from that economy, to come innovate and make more money
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    Agreed. One important additional point being "Money to actually build and develop the technology the innovation runs on" - without the economies to buy the stuff, there would be no chip factories... and I'm fairly sure too that things will shift massively in the decades to come.
    – Pekka
    Feb 16 '11 at 20:14
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    Not to mention that high GDPs generally mean people have some free time and energy to spend on their own personal goals, which can turn into innovation even if not originally business-oriented. Feb 16 '11 at 20:24
  • I remember having read Bill Gates saying that he couldn't have done what he did outside the USA because copyright laws protect innovators. Jan 19 '16 at 15:56

I am not from China but my race is Chinese. I personally think that in Chinese culture, the quote "The nail that sticks up gets hammered down" holds true, discouraging innovation even from childhood altogether.

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    I'm a Chinese and I agree with you on that.
    – Graviton
    Feb 17 '11 at 6:30
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    That kind of culture... ouch.
    – compman
    Feb 17 '11 at 6:48
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    Funny, I thought that was a Japanese idiom. It's quite true in Japan too, unfortunately. I think to a large extent Western society outgrew that mentality early with the help of Greek philosophers like Plato and Aristotle, who catalyzed/popularized critical thinking over the couple thousand years following. Feb 17 '11 at 6:52
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    @Rei Miyasaka: Also, the US is filled with the descendants of people who were dissatisfied with the state of affairs in their countries of origin. So there is a cultural history of striving for innovation and progress.
    – Jon Purdy
    Feb 17 '11 at 21:44
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    In China it's slightly different, actually: the nail that sticks up gets copied and mass-produced at lower quality -- take it from a guy who lives there.
    – Drew
    Feb 21 '11 at 11:01

Good anwers, especially the last two bullet by @Corbin, but there seems to be some confusion about cause and effect:

Innovation doesn't follow money, it causes money.

In other words, innovation generates wealth, not the other way 'round.

Without well-defined property rights, innovation and entrepeneurship cannot flourish, and if advancement by your own efforts is only possible for an elite cadre, innovation is stifled.

ADDENDUM: if the predominant culture is strict and hierarchical, if asking questions is seen as disrespectful, then innovation is stifled regardless of wealth.

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    Nice. I expected someone might point out the chicken-and-egg issue. It reminds me of an observation about public schools in the US: bad neighborhoods don't create bad schools, bad schools create bad neighborhoods. Feb 16 '11 at 21:35
  • This. Innovation follows freedom and accountability. Money follows all three. @Corbin - your thing about school is interesting, but I don't think it's true. It's certainly not true here (in San Francisco, which has almost uniformly crappy schools). Feb 17 '11 at 1:26
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    Well it's gotta go both ways, right? If you make something fantastic you'll make a lot of money, but rarely, unless you're really lucky or talented, will innovation be possible without some degree of monetary support either feeding you or your environment. Especially for large projects; yeah, you can do research if you can feed you and your family, but if you want to put together an OS or a database system or a programming platform, you're going to need more than just talent and enthusiasm. Even with Linux, 75% of the kernel is done by paid programmers. Feb 17 '11 at 6:39
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    in the beginning, there was no money, but there was innovation. Cause and effect. Money can amplify innovation, but it cannot cause it to be created. However, innovation can cause money (wealth) to be created. Feb 17 '11 at 7:09
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    Yes, but some degree of money is necessary for virtually any kind of innovation, and a lot of money is necessary for certain kinds of innovations -- so as much as I don't like the notion, the rich do have a better chance of getting richer, and innovation will be faster in already-wealthy places. Feb 17 '11 at 8:23

My answer is, "Yes, for now." Furthermore a truly disproportionate amount of it comes from one small area of North America called Silicon Valley.

Many, many books have been written about why this would be. Two of my favorite sets of thoughts on this are Paul Graham's take at http://www.paulgraham.com/america.html on why the USA is friendly to startups, and Steve Blank's explanation of how Silicon Valley got that way at http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=ZTC_RxWN_xo (warning, hour long video) which he wrote a number of followups to at http://steveblank.com/category/secret-history-of-silicon-valley/ (start at the bottom of that page and work up).

Note that innovation locations are highly subject dependent. For instance while software innovation is disproportionately coming from Silicon Valley, innovation in mass CPU manufacturing techniques is largely found in east Asia, because that is where all of the factories and hence expertise now is.

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    That text of Paul Graham is brilliant!!!
    – user8685
    Feb 16 '11 at 21:35
  • @developer-art: Yes, Paul Graham frequently is. He has a lot of essays at paulgraham.com/articles.html and most are worthwhile reads.
    – btilly
    Feb 16 '11 at 21:45
  • Yep, I know, just never read this one. Oh my, I love this one.
    – user8685
    Feb 16 '11 at 21:50
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    Mmm, it's not a bad article, but the part about "Gee, where did all the German Jews go after then 1930s" was a bit, uh, jejune. All the actual points are conventional wisdom (which is not to say "wrong" at all, just not earth-shattering revelations). Feb 17 '11 at 1:13
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    @Malvolio: Paul Graham tends to be like that a lot. He's very talented at persuasive writing, so he can make the ideas that he's trying to communicate sound very good, but when you actually separate the actual ideas from the rhetoric, most of what you end up with turns out to be a lot less interesting than the presentation. Plus, a lot of it is demonstrably false and harmful, especially when he starts talking about computer programming, so it's best to take his work with a grain of salt... Feb 17 '11 at 21:55


Some countries (US, Canada, some parts of Europe, etc) are more willing and able to spend a lot of money for research or innovation.

I was recently listening to an interview and the interviewee was saying that most government money in the country she was from goes towards building up the infastructure or education / health programs for its citizens, and as a result Technology and Research played a much smaller role in society. I honestly can't remember any specifics such as who or where though....

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    Money if given to the promising people not burned out on the social welfare. Don't expect any innovation in welfare-poisoned countries.
    – user8685
    Feb 16 '11 at 20:17
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    @Developer Art: Don't expect innovation where it isn't rewarded. Welfare has a whole lot less to do with that than ease in starting a business and having a stable business climate. You won't get much innovation without a good public education system, and a lot less in places with bad infrastructure. Feb 16 '11 at 20:31
  • The USA has built great infrastructure. Jan 19 '16 at 15:58

I have noticed is that a lot of people from other countries go North American and European schools. In my graduating CS class, the non-Asian demographic was defiantly the minority.

I noticed that a lot of people in my graduating class were offered jobs in North America. Many large companies were willing to pay for and help out with the Visa process. Companies like Google, Amazon, and Microsoft will hire the best, even if it costs them some upfront costs to do so.

What I think is that, no the developed world holding the innovation title won't be the case in the future. More people from various countries are getting the same education from top schools in the field. Some of these people will choose to stay in the country they were trained in, but many others will probably head home. I'd bet that we will start to see a lot more innovation and growth in other countries as a result.


I would argue for cultural differences. Research has been done into conditions that support innovation. One of the key factors is acceptance of differences. Strong artistic communities tend exist in centers of innovation.

Outside of this I can thing another factors that will influence the tools you see. There is often an strong NIH (not invented here) culture which keeps innovations from migrating to other cultures. Also English language countries tend to be uni-lingual making it difficult to learn about innovations in other cultures.

For examples of innovations that haven't made it to North America:

  • Standard interbank numbers allowing easy transfers from one persons bank account to someone else's account. This is a common payment mechanism in Europe.
  • Cheap international cell phone roaming charges.
  • Caller pays for cell phone calls. (Even from land lines.)

EDIT: References on innovation, arts, and technology.

Don't have the original references, but I have run across various references on CBC (Canadian Broadcasting Corporation) broadcasts. Here are some references. However I did locate this lecture Richard Florida on the creative class. This is a longer version of the information I originally heard.

  • +1, interesting answer - can you share references for the cultural differences research please?
    – limist
    Feb 17 '11 at 0:27
  • This is about the dumbest thing I've every read. Banks in Canada and the US have an ABA number that allows cheap or free transfers among them via ACH (compared to the horrifically overpriced SWIFT system in the EU). There are almost no roaming charges left in the US. And cell-phone calls are free to both parties with most plans (why would charging the caller help? He's not the one who picked the plan.) Feb 17 '11 at 1:24
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    @Malvolio Inside the EU SWIFT is old technology and extremely expensive. They now use IBAN at little or no cost. The cell phone roaming costs I was referring to are International, and into or out of North America tend to run around $3/minute. If you spend enough for your cell phone plan calls are free for both parties, but there are lots of per minutes plans around.
    – BillThor
    Feb 17 '11 at 2:30
  • @Limist Added an edit with some references but haven't tracked down the original shows that introduced the ideas.
    – BillThor
    Feb 17 '11 at 2:36
  • @Limist If you have an hour try listening to or watching Richard Florida's lecture. This is one of my original sources.
    – BillThor
    Feb 17 '11 at 6:17

Actually a fair bit is happening in Israel these days! I think there are more startups per capita here then anywhere else in the world. Things you may have heard of or use from Israel include

Zend, ICQ, and a lot of Intel's chip design.

If you drive threw some of the areas around Tel Aviv and look at the company names you might as well be in Silicon Valley. (Intel, IBM, Freescale, Microsoft, Google, Amdocs)

Oh and Joel who created this site is an Israeli Expat.

  • I'm tempted to argue that the successful protests in Tunisia and Egypt (especially Egypt) are the result of innovative and very skilled use of technology in crowd management -- though that's a bit slippery :) Feb 17 '11 at 22:25

I'm surprised no one's mentioned genetics. Scientists have found an alcoholism gene, a liberal gene, a correlation between amygdala volume and social network size, and even an arts gene. It seems obvious there's also an innovation gene, though I'm sure it's more complicated than a single allele.

Innovation hubs are places where genetically-disposed people have met, had babies, and stayed put. Silicon Valley is a second or third generation innovation hub.

I don't mean this to sound prejudice. More than anything, the "innovation" gene seems to include a predisposition toward urbanism, solitude, and aesthetics. It's not all rosy. Remember, creative/innovative people show a greater tendency toward schizoid spectrum behavior.

As for when, Ray Kurzweil believes gene therapy will become shockingly advanced within two decades. At that point, you'll be able to buy innovation, or good money sense, or even a better-business-plan gene.

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    I highly doubt that there's an "arts gene" or an "innovation gene". The sizes of the specific parts of the brain change not only with genetics but also with use (i.e. a fully bilingual person will have significantly different structures than a monolingual person), so I doubt the social network size matter is very analogous. Chemical dependencies and properties like alcoholism surely have genes, but I highly doubt that higher order cognitive functions do. There are preferences and dispositions and capacities, of course, but most people in the world don't come close to their full potential. Feb 17 '11 at 22:17
  • Hi Rei Miyasaka. I'll admit I can't say for sure. A lot of the research is beyond me. Still, it seems like many smart people are unraveling mind mysteries that were impenetrable even 5 years ago. It wouldn't surprise me if we become 100% predictable. Have you read Clay Shirky's take on free will or Don Delillo? Surely genetics aren't completely unrelated to innovation? Feb 18 '11 at 5:04
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    As my education prof would say, it's wholly possible to predict raw functions of the brain with genetics and other predeterministic factors, but mapping the functions of the mind requires another mind of comparable state -- that is, only an educated person can comprehend the thinking of another educated person. Creative activities are known to involve the entire brain by the way, so until someone develops a human-like AI or a cell-level human brain simulation, I doubt there'll be much to say about innovativeness other than physiological capacity and contingently activated dispositions. Feb 18 '11 at 11:22

I'm not sure why you put Europe in that list. From what I see most practical developments originate from the USA.

The reasons are definitely cultural and economical. Most of all, USA enjoys the culture of entrepreneurship and risk-taking, while European region is rather conservative and risk-averse.

Another reason is that the country has a long history of attracting all sorts of smart and enthusiastic folks from all over the world. Here you've got the high concentration of people and ideas.

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    Linux, Python, Scala, etc. are major software contributions from Europe, thus the mention.
    – limist
    Feb 16 '11 at 19:40
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    Charles Babbage - English. Alan Turing - English. Maurice Wilkes - English. Stanley Gill - English. Alick E. Glennie - English. Frierich L. Bauer - German. Already I've listed from the Analytical Engine to key concepts to build programs & compilers, all from Europe. Throw in things like Google Maps which originated in Australia. Hell, even first ports of UNIX were done in Australia (UNSW campus that is now UoW). If I had more time to waste I'm sure I could create a huge list of non-American 'practical' developments/ I think you're being a bit tunnel visioned... Feb 16 '11 at 19:41
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    And with practical you mean buggy and not internationalised? :-)
    – rsp
    Feb 16 '11 at 20:07
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    Downvoting because of the assumption, not backed by anything, that the practical developments generally come from the US. I'd suggest explaining what you mean, why you think that, and why Linux and Opera and Python are less practical in your opinion. My uncharitable suspicion is that "practical", to you, largely means "Microsoft". Feb 16 '11 at 20:27
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    @Developer, I did. That's why I closed with Google Maps and UNIX. Other people have already mentioned Opera, Pyhon, Linux. How about Symbian OS from Finland back when it was the leader? How about the German software giant SAP? The list goes on... Feb 16 '11 at 20:35

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