Re: [R] History of R

From: Kathy Gerber <kathy_at_virginia.edu>
Date: Sat, 16 Feb 2008 14:04:06 -0500

Spencer,

I believe this is the first mention of pricing that I've seen. The accommodation and consideration of contributed packages has been addressed to some degree.

Several additional points have been made about the comparison of R to Octave, some off list.
-- Matlab did not alienate developers all that much, so people were not driven as much to Octave. With S-PLUS package developers often had their packages break with the new release. So this frustration was a big driver. R met this kind of demand; Octave not so much.

As an aside, I would note that rather than update their libraries and scripts or develop a real Maple alternative, many mathematicians stuck with Maple V for several years beyond its "life cycle." Though there were some efforts and I don't want to dismiss their current though somewhat limited success, I don't believe there was a critical mass of folks able or interested in developing an alternative from the ground up in the past. But also those libraries had a tiny user base, and just maybe in mathematics a mindset of "Q.E.D. - I've moved on" enters into play.

Kathy Gerber

Spencer Graves wrote:
> Hi, Kathy, John, et al.:
> Has there been an answer to the question of why R has been much
> more successful than Octave?
> In this regard, can anyone provide a price comparison of student
> versions for S-Plus and Matlab during R's gestation period, 10-15
> years ago? I had the impression, perhaps incorrect, that several
> college profs (including Ross and Robert) felt their student's could
> not afford S-Plus, and that was a large part of the motivation, not
> just for R & R, but for many other early contributors to R.
> Insightful has been incredibly generous to the R community recently,
> and I hope that continues. However, I wonder if R would have emerged
> when it did and been as successful if academic prices for S-Plus prior
> to, say, 1992 or 1997 had been substantially lower, especially outside
> the US. Of course, it may have been easier for the Matlab to offer
> deep academic discounts than S-Plus, because Matlab may have a larger
> industrial base market.
> Beyond that, the "contributed packages" system has helped
> immensely in R's growth; if Octave has such a system, it's not as
> visible as CRAN. I recall hearing from Doug Bates (last August at
> useR! 2007 in Ames, IA) that a major turning point in the development
> of R came when Martin Maechler convinced Ross & Robert to accept
> contributed packages. However, this is my memory, and it would be
> wise if feasible to clarify this with Ross, Robert, Martin, Doug, and
> others.
>
> That's just my US$0.02 (which is only worth roughly half what it
> was on the international market at this time in 2001).
> Hope this helps,
> Spencer
> Kathy Gerber wrote:
>> Thanks to all who responded so thoughtfully. I would like to
>> summarize briefly the observations and opinions so far with some of
>> my own interpretations and thoughts. John Fox is working on a much
>> deeper history scheduled for August, and his three factors are a good
>> starting point.
>>
>> John Fox wrote:
>>
>>> Dear Kathy,
>>>
>>> As Achim has mentioned, I've been doing interviews with members of
>>> the R
>>> Core team and with some other people central to the R Project.
>>> Although I
>>> haven't entirely organized and finished reflecting on this material,
>>> the
>>> following factors come immediately to mind:
>>>
>>> (1) Doug has already mentioned the personal and technical talents of
>>> the
>>> original developers, and their generosity in opening up development
>>> to a
>>> Core group and in making R open source. To that I would add the
>>> collective
>>> talents of the Core group as a whole.
>>>
>> There are three attributes here:
>> a) Personal talent: I take this to mean communication and teaching
>> ability along with leadership. These are the talents and skills that
>> provide groundwork for a mature type of collaboration, more along the
>> lines found in tightly focused academic areas. I would think that
>> these attributes are big factors in why R has not devolved into
>> forks and holy wars.
>> b) Technical talent: Both the technical talent and domain knowledge
>> of the original developers and the R Core group are better than
>> consistently solid. The leaders are not rock stars or cult figures.
>> c) Generosity: The responses themselves sincerely gave credit to
>> others. While this may appear to be consistent with Eric Raymond's
>> notions of open source as built upon a "gift culture," I haven't
>> really seen this going on elsewhere at such a level.
>>
>>> (2) R implements the S language, which already was in wide use, and
>>> which
>>> has many attractive features (each of use, etc.).
>>>
>>>
>> One person who emailed privately pointed out that many open source
>> projects are "knock-offs," e.g., linux itself is a unix knock-off. I
>> believe the point is that R is not a totally new approach or
>> invention, rather it is based upon advancing some product or
>> collection of ideas that are already in place.
>>
>>> (3) The R package system and the establishment of CRAN allowed
>>> literally
>>> hundreds of developers to contribute to the broader R Project. More
>>> generally, the Core group worked to integrate users into the R Project,
>>> e.g., through R News, the r-help list (though naive users aren't always
>>> treated gently there), and the useR conferences.
>>>
>>>
>> Again, this is another distinctive feature, perhaps not in concept
>> but in degree and level of actual success thanks to good planning.
>> Like so many other points, this goes back to the leadership.
>>
>> Another point made was the need or demand for such an application.
>> Yet another was the planning that goes into avoiding breakage of
>> packages. What no one mentioned though was the idea of standards.
>> Finally, in comparing with Octave, it was mentioned that Octave may
>> be stuck in a position of playing catch-up to Matlab.
>> What I have here is far from complete, but I did want to give some
>> feedback tonight. Again, thanks to you all for such articulate
>> responses, and I will point to my slides, and later on write up a
>> summary.
>>
>> Kathy Gerber
>>
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>



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