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Open Sources 2.0

Chris DiBona, Mark Stone and Danese Cooper (Eds)
Published by O'Reilly Media
ISBN:0-596-00802-3
488 pages
£ 20.95
Published: October 14, 2005
reviewed by Roger Whittaker
   in the June 2006 issue (pdf), (html)
bookcover  

This book is a follow-up to the original ``Open Sources: Voices from the Open Source Revolution'' which was published in January 1999, both in book form and on the web under licences allowing redistribution of the text.

The web version of that book is available at: http://www.oreilly.com/catalog/opensources/book/toc.html

The original ``Open Sources'' contained chapters by Eric Raymond (two chapters), Richard Stallman, Linus Torvalds, Michael Tiemann, Bob Young, Larry Wall and Bruce Perens among others and appeared at a time of considerable general excitement about the ideas contained in it. The book was at least in part a collection of manifestoes and evangelism for those ideas, and most of the content was re-printed from other sources. Looking at it again now, there's a definite air of bliss was it in that dawn to be alive about it.

More than six years later, the new book is necessarily different in tone and content. Subtitled ``The Continuing Evolution'', it is a longer book, with 24 chapters in all, laid out in two sections: ``Open Source: Competition and Evolution'' and ``Beyond Open Source: Collaboration and Community''.

The chapters in the first section are broadly about software, while the second section is mostly concerned with Open Source software as merely one example of a wider change in human affairs, largely facilitated by the Internet, which has led to a realisation that collaborative working by the many can have powerful consequences.

Chris DiBona's chapter ``Open Source and Proprietary Software Development'' mostly covers familiar ground, but in a fresh and interesting way. He concludes with the story of a conversation he overheard in the mid-90s when a lawyer said ``You know, if TCP/IP had been properly protected and patented, we could have rigged it so that every packet cost money; they really missed the boat on that one.'' DiBona's comment: ``Where would the Internet be if this was true? I don't know, but I do know one thing: the Internet would not be running TCP/IP''.

Jeremy Allison's chapter ``A Tale of Two Standards'' is perhaps the only `technical' chapter in the whole book, comparing the POSIX standard with Win32. He looks particularly at how Microsoft's access control in the Win32 standard theoretically permits a high level of security, but in practice has failed because its complexity has meant that application writers have almost entirely ignored the possibilities that it affords. He also writes interestingly about how the release by Microsoft of Services for Unix provided a fully POSIX environment on Windows, and speculates about the motives behind this release.

There are three separate chapters looking at the progress of Free and Open Source software in different parts of the world, namely Europe, India and China.

A highlight of the second part of the book is Pamela Jones' chapter ``Extending Open Source Principles beyond Software''. This is a description of the history of Groklaw. She describes how Groklaw became a collaborative community with a common goal, and how the spirit of open collaboration helped it to succeed in its aims (of documenting and researching the SCO legal cases and related matters) far beyond her expectations. But she also describes in some detail and with not a little bitterness the fly in the ointment: the problems that she has had with trolls, astroturfers and undercover enemies trying to use Groklaw to undermine its aims.

Perhaps predictably there are also chapters about Wikipedia (by Larry Sanger) and about Slashdot (by Jeff Bates and Mark Stone). Sanger's Wikipedia article also goes into detail about the problems of governance in an open collaborative project: problems which led in part to his resignation from the project.

The Slashdot chapter goes into considerable detail about the governance and community of Slashdot, and ultimately comes to a conclusion that a community of this kind needs a ``benevolent dictatorship'' combined with systems which allow the best to come to the top: a design which has been inherent in Slashdot from the start, though to what extent it succeeds is possibly debatable. There's also (slightly surprisingly to me) a long discussion of the ``Hellmouth'' the discussions that went on on Slashdot immediately after the Columbine school massacre. Jon Katz's article ``Why Kids Kill'' from that time is also included as an appendix to the book.

Slightly further from our world, but on a topic of huge importance to humanity is Andrew Hessel's chapter ``Open Source Biology''. The parallels with the world of Open Source Software, both in terms of open versus closed ``intellectual property'' and methods of working are clear, and Hessel explains the history and the threats and challenges.

Doc Searles also has a chapter in the second section entitled ``Making a New World''. As usual for him, there are some interesting insights: in particular he examines the way in which through what he calls ``collapsed distinctions'' the arguments about free and open source software are over-simplified, obscuring important issues and making the discussion one-dimensional (as distinct from the literally two-dimensional diagrams which he uses to illustrate his argument).

This book does much more than simply restate familiar arguments. Parts of it are thought provoking and will repay reading and re-reading.

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