Open Sources 2.0: the continuing evolution - review
by James A J Wilson on 4 May 2006 , last updated
- Editors: Chris DiBona, Danese Cooper, Mark Stone
- Publisher: O’Reilly
- Year: 2005
- ISBN: 0-596-00802-3
Open Sources 2.0 is the sequel to Open Sources: Voices from the Revolution (1999), although it is not, strictly speaking, an upgrade to the earlier book. Rather, it is a generously proportioned collection of new essays from some of the leading figures in open source software: business leaders, developers, lawyers, consultants and academics. Intended for a general readership, the essays avoid technical language and tend to focus on the bigger picture aspects of open source.
The essays in the collection are divided into two broad sections:
- Competition and Evolution, dealing with the market for open source software and the challenges it presents. This concludes with essays on Europe and three other key international markets: India, China, and Brazil
- Collaboration and Community, which tends to be more theoretical in outlook, although each essay is rooted in experience
I came to this book as a newcomer to the world of open source, being familiar enough with applications such as OpenOffice, but still mystified as to why anyone would spend so much time developing software only to give it away for free. I suspect I am not alone in my bemusement. My hope was that the essays in this book might shed some light on this peculiar phenomenon.
Even the imaginative introduction, by Chris DiBona, Danese Cooper and Mark Stone, explores alternative models to open source that might help suggest answers to the question how does selfishness become altruism. This is followed by several essays on open source business models, which to some extent reverse that question, looking at how one might actually make money from something distributed for free.
Michael Olson presents a strong case for dual licensing, contending that the amount of innovation in the software market is much smaller than is generally supposed and therefore that the market is ripe for commoditization. Commoditization is a theme throughout the book, and it seems that it is now broadly agreed among these essayists that commoditization and open source go hand in hand. This being the case, the business contributors tend to explore open source from the perspective of other markets that have already been commoditized.
Matthew N. Asay at times sees the world as rather more commoditized than it really is, but nevertheless presents an interesting argument that the means to profitability is no longer to own the source, but to own its creators, and thereby the copyright on their output. While this does not fit with every model of open source development, and might not be quite in the spirit of things, almost all the contributors to the book would agree that the development of open source software is bringing about a paradigm shift in the software industry. Tim O’Reiley takes this paradigm shift as the central theme of his essay, which is one of the stand-out chapters of the book, looking at the position of open source with regard to profitable companies operating via the Internet, such as Amazon and Google. Several authors in this section are at pains to point out how accepting standards plays a large part in the commoditization of the market.
At the more technical end of the spectrum, Ben Laurie’s essay on ‘Open Source and Security’ deserves a special mention. Laurie contends that the many eyes make all bugs shallow theory is untrue where security vulnerabilities are concerned. Given that most people do not look at source code until something goes wrong, it is easy to spot bugs, but not vulnerabilities. Nevertheless, Laurie is keen to point out that by any measure…open source is ahead of closed source when it comes to security. Still, it is about time that the community abandons its reliance on the many eyes theory with regards to security.
The chapter on Europe stresses the contribution of European developers to open source projects and provides a brief directory of projects, government and education initiatives, and legal issues surrounding open source. The chapters on India, China, and Brazil are more interesting for their insights into the adoption of open source in these regions, which is somewhat stymied by high levels of software piracy. Ironically, the essentially free (as in beer) nature of much supposedly proprietary software has led to strong support networks being established for such products, rendering it less desirable to switch to open source. Recent crackdowns on piracy are, however, helping the spread of open source software. Of particular interest is Bruno Souza’s article on Brazil, where such crackdowns, allegedly at the instigation of Microsoft, have fostered an intimidatory atmosphere that appears to have damaged Microsoft’s reputation. The Brazilian government seems to be particularly warm to open source, and Souza is positive about the direction in which the country is heading. He also makes a personal plea against Java-bashing by the open source community, as it is effectively free 1 and acts as a useful cross-platform standard.
The book features a number of personal memoirs in both sections, each with tips for readers as to how to manage the opportunities and pitfalls of open source. Mitchell Baker relates the story of the Mozilla project, with an emphasis on marshalling the community of developers. Russ Nelson offers tips to budding entrepreneurs based on his long experience of giving away his software. Groklaw’s Pamela Jones relates the story of the SCO v IBM court case, and provides tips on dealing with online mischief-makers. Larry Sanger, rather ruefully, attempts to explain just what went wrong with Wikipedia, and how it was ruined by anarchist trolls(!). In one of the more tangential essays of the collection, Andrew Hessel speculates on how an open source model might assist the development of synthetic biology involving genomics. In the final essay of the volume, Jeff Bates and Mark Stone recount the growth of SlashDot, and take issue with Eric Raymond’s metaphor for open source community of the bazaar, preferring to see it rather less metaphorically as a tribe. This neatly ties back to the introduction, in which the participatory tribe analogy also forms the centre point. Both regard open source communities as egalitarian, but not democratic: everyone gets a voice, but not everyone gets a vote.
The nature of open source
The quest for appropriate metaphors, analogies, similarities, and connections to the world outside open source is one of the central preoccupations of the book. Many of the writers seek historical parallels to explain and elucidate the open source phenomenon. These range from the recent and reasonable (Ian Murdock’s analysis of the commoditization of computer hardware in the 1980s), to the rather more distant, such as the editors’ equation of open source developers and the chivalric knights of the Middle Ages. In general, a given comparison’s distance in time from the present day roughly corresponds to its distance in usefuleness, right the way back to Kim Polese’s assertion that, just as the software business was preceded by programming, so agriculture started with gardening.
Metaphors from industries outside computing are sometimes sought. Doc Searls’ interesting essay on collaboration and community builds on the correspondences between the construction and software industries and markets to make his point, and does so with wit. Others look for more direct comparisons between working practices and community structures. Sonali K. Shah’s study looks as how users turned into innovators and even developers in the early motor industry, and, in particular, certain sports industries, in ways that seem to mirror what is happening in open source software. Eugene Kim even goes so far as to see parallels between open source development communities and the response of the rescuers to the World Trade Centre atrocity in September 2001.
That so many writers hit upon so many different and contrasting means of illustrating the nature of open source indicates that it is a phenomenon that is still posing questions of those who would understand it and harness its potential. None of the parallels is entirely satisfying; none of the writers trying to grasp the essence of open source quite seems to get there, although many help to build a clearer picture of what it is they are looking at. I suspect that version 3.0 should be along in another few years.
Although this book was written in 2006, it is still an important book for anyone seeking to get to grips with the state of open source today. Almost all of the essays are well written, and the editors should be commended for their selection of articles. Readers already involved in open source will doubtless be drawn to those sections that address their particular involvement, while for the general interested reader, the book as a whole can be recommended.
Do I now feel as though I know all I need to about open source software? No. But I know a lot more than I did before.
Do I now understand why people would consider giving away their software for free? Not completely. But I now have a better grasp of some of the reasons. I’ve got plenty more to learn, but Open Sources 2.0 has been a great resource to help take me to the next stage. I recommend it.
- O’Reilly (publisher) [http://www.oreilly.com/catalog/opensources2/]
- Online edition [http://www.archive.org/details/opensources2.000diborich]
Related information from OSS Watch:
- Governance models
- Avoiding abandon-ware: getting to grips with the open development method
- The business of open source
- How to build an open source community
- Open source development - an introduction to ownership and licensing issues
- Is open source software insecure? An introduction to the issues
As of May 2008 Java is released under the GPL. ↩