|The Success of Open Source|
|pages||320 pages, 5 line illustrations|
|publisher||Harvard University Press|
|reviewer||Joshua Daniel Franklin|
|summary||Weber argues that the success of Open Source is due to a production process than may be generalizable to other arenas.|
Weber is an academic and makes no apologies for it. He is not presenting an exciting new business plan, advocating a particular method of software development, or calling hackers to revolution. He is simply describing his findings after extensive research of the Open Source development process and drawing conclusions from them. As such, this book may not appeal to everyone in the Open Source community. However, Weber's ideas are timely and informative for anyone who wants to explain or advocate Open Source. He likens his work to The Machine that Changed the World, the story of Toyota's production method (224):
That book made two simple and profound points: The Toyota "system" was not a car, and it was not uniquely Japanese. The parallels are obvious. Open source is not a piece of software, and it is not unique to a group of hackers.
The first part of The Success of Open Source is a historical case study that examines the origins and social development of the Open Source community. It begins with Unix and hacker culture. For those who have read Steven Levy's Hackers: Heroes of the Computer Revolution and Peter Salus' A Quarter Century of UNIX, there is little new material here, but Weber offers a new and interesting perspective on the events. For example, he offers the insight that "hacker culture" existed before widespread network connectivity, drawing into question whether cheap bandwidth is really essential.
From there, he covers the development of the BSDs, Apache, and Linux, focusing again on social structures. He describes diverse events such as the messy expulsion of Theo de Raadt from the NetBSD core, the creation of Apache by an informal group of interested developers, and the establishment of Alan Cox as de facto Linux networking lieutenant. Weber draws from an impressive array of firsthand accounts, including mailing lists, websites, conference speeches, and personal interviews.
I get some interesting trivia out of this, such as Larry McVoy's original Unix is dying troll (98). Unfortunately, since Weber's narrative is mainly topical, it is occasionally redundant in telling one story from multiple social angles. Other claims are close to flamebait, such as suggesting that Richard Stallman is an example of a "failed leader." (168)
For the second half of the book, Weber moves on to Explaining Open Source in the terms of his discipline, political economy. He sees two broad categories of principles to the Open Source process: Microfoundations, including individual motivations and the economic logic of the collective good; and Macro-Organization, solving the problems of coordination and complexity. (133) While I doubt each reader will catch every academic nuance in these chapters, Weber is thankfully sparing in his use of specialized vocabulary and writes his overall argument in clear, easy-to-follow logic.
This section also contains the most insightful observations in The Success of Open Source. While there are too many to list here, one is the concept of Open Source Software as antirival. As more copies are made and put into use, value increases as a result of a larger market and the small percentage of users that contribute bug reports and possibly patches. This turns the traditional "free rider" problem into an advantage.
Though Weber does not mention this in the text, one can see part of this principle in proprietary vendors' providing free downloads or turning their backs on rampant piracy. It also does not take a great leap of logic to see application of the antirival model to other fields such as music or academic research.
As is customary in social science literature, Weber uses his conclusion to both recap his argument and to raise questions for future direction of research. What is the best organization method for property distribution, as opposed to the current methods based on exclusion? How can the Open Source production process be used effectively to improve prospects for the developing world? What is the best way for closed, hierarchical systems to interact with open, network-based ones? While some of the issues involved are offtopic for this book, hopefully future work will examine these questions in depth.
Though Open Source has been mentioned in many recent works, The Success of Open Source is the first academic book that focuses on the Open Source community as its object of study. It gives a readable, thought-provoking, and occasionally funny account of what Open Source is and means, making it an extremely valuable resource for those who want to engage and discuss these issues on an intellectual level. As Weber states, his positive, constructive outlook "may not be fully satisfying, but it's not a bad place to start." (272)
Joshua Daniel Franklin is a graduate student at the University of Washington's Information School. This review may be redistributed under the Creative Commons Attribution License. You can read the table of contents, preface, and an excerpt of the first chapter of The Success of Open Source at the Harvard University Press website. The reviewer's website has an list of errata. You can purchase the The Success of Open Source from bn.com. Slashdot welcomes readers' book reviews -- to see your own review here, carefully read the book review guidelines, then visit the submission page.