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Book Review: Open Sources 2.0: The Continuing Evolution

DiBona, Cooper and Stone 

ISBN: 0-596-00802-3 $29.95 US, $41.95 CA, £20.95 UK

O’Reilly Media 

Link to sample chapter - http://www.oreilly.com/catalog/opensources2/chapter/ch00.pdf

Link to image file - ftp://ftp.ora.com/pub/graphics/book_covers/hi-res/0596008023.jpg

As the version number in the title would indicate, this book is a follow-up to Open Sources (1999, O’Reilly). There are inherent dangers in writing a sequel – you’ve lost the element of surprise and created certain expectations. As Hollywood has shown far too often, it’s easy to sink into comfortable repetition.

Fortunately, that’s not the case here – the subtitle, Continuing Evolution, is warranted. As sequels go, this is much more like a Harry Potter movie than “Die Hard II”. It perhaps does not have quite so stellar a cast of contributors as its predecessor but the diversity and number of authors more than makes up for this. There are contributors from Europe, North America, South America and Asia. Naturally, most have an IT background but there are also biologists and political and social scientists amongst them. This variety as much as any of the individual articles speaks to the strength and success of open source (OS).

Take, for example, Steven Weber’s examination of OS from the point of view of a social scientist. It is a nice counterpoint to the discussion of OS in feudal or chivalric terms presented in the introduction. There is a common message that it is not the number of programmers or legions of beta testers that determine the success of an open source project. In sociological terms it is the pattern of governance or the “referee function”; or in the terms of the introduction, an attitude of “stewardship” rather than ownership. You may prefer one vocabulary over the other but the different perspectives are mutually enlightening. 

You might have guessed that this is not a book for someone with a narrow focus. If your interest is in finding particular OS applications and their suitability to your circumstances you would do well to look elsewhere. But examination of the big questions informs the smaller questions and a broad historical approach helps put things in perspective. 

For example, the “altruistic” element of OS is best understood in its historical context. It’s helpful to know that OS didn’t come out of nowhere but originated to preserve the “culture of sharing” that preceded the Unix wars. In terms of the history of computing, Tim O’Reilly (of O’Reilly Media) sees OS as a paradigm shift on a par with the decision by IBM to use off-the-shelf components. The open architecture of the PC commoditized hardware and OS is having the same effect on software.

Indeed, commoditization is a topic covered by a number of the authors (S. Walli, I. Murdoch, M. Asay) and goes some way towards explaining that central question of how commerce and open source can co-exist or, from the OS developer’s perspective, how to make money without selling out. The comments of M. Asay are particularly interesting on this topic. He offers a number of different open source business models but central to each is the idea that business should “own” (his quotation marks) the coder, not the code.

When the first book was written, the Mozilla project was in a nascent stage and there were many naysayers predicting its failure. For this reason, the story of its spectacular success, related in the follow-up article provided here, makes for suspenseful reading.

The Mozilla project is also an interesting case study in the resolution of open source and business interests. The details of the tension between AOL and the Mozilla developers and the resolution of that tension are particularly interesting. 

Likewise, the Mozilla project is just one of the many diverse paths that can lead to a successful OS project; Wikipedia followed a somewhat different path.  I did find this article a bit disappointing – an “open source” encyclopedia should tell us  more about OS software. I recently had occasion to look up the American Revolution on Wikipedia and found a mildly humorous (some would say vandalizing) comment about “the significance of big pants” under the topic of “Religious Issues”. This was quickly edited out but it does bring to mind comparison with some issues in OS software  such as security and committing code.

This book shows us that OS is something more (and less) than it appeared to be in 1999 and, as in Open Sources, there is also a polemical aspect to these articles. In the interests of promoting further acceptance, most writers eschew any issues that might be construed as ideological. There is an emphasis on the similarities between OS and proprietary projects – which undoubtedly exist – but this should not blind us to the essential differences. Open source is open in the sense that the development process is transparent. Much easier to push a hidden agenda within a closed environment - to put sales and marketing rather than community interests at the fore. It is for this reason that proprietary software has tried to co-opt the term “community” but again that just goes to show the success of OS.

A collection of articles (perhaps essays is a better term) is quite a different animal than a book authored by a single writer. Having multiple points of view rather than a single opinion should stimulate discussion and from this perspective Open Source 2.0 is an unqualified success.

But the elements that these essays have in common are equally revealing and thought provoking. A number of authors comment on the necessity of the internet – itself a product of OS – for the success of OS. The internet “enables the open source development model to work”.  We also see an emphasis on the process rather than the fact of OS.  This certainly got me to thinking back to some ill-remembered concepts from undergraduate years, namely the “global village” and the medium as the message/massage. Too bad Marshall McLuhan didn’t write about OS and the internet. But then again he did – we just didn’t know it at the time.

About the Author

Peter Lavin runs a Web Design/Development firm in Toronto, Canada. He has been published in a number of magazines and online sites, including UnixReview.com, php|architect and International PHP Magazine. He is a contributor to the recently published O'Reilly book, PHP Hacks and is also the author of Object Oriented PHP, published by No Starch Press.

Please do not reproduce this article in whole or part, in any form, without obtaining written permission.