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Steven Weber. The success of open source Steven Weber.
The success of open source.
Cambridge, Mass.: Harvard University Press, 2004.
cloth, 312 p., ISBN 0 674 01292 5, $US29.95.
Harvard University Press: http://www.hup.harvard.edu/

 


 

Linus and Bill

Steven Weber’s The success of open source is a remarkable synthesis of political science, economics, law, sociology, and the history of technology, to name but some of the fields his impressive monograph encompasses. His excellent work is perhaps the best multi–disciplinary analysis (of any phenomenon) I have read.

The title is something of a misnomer in that Weber is not some rosy–eyed technophile predicting the triumph of open source software over the dark empire of Redmond, Washington. Instead, his is a careful, reasoned analysis of open source’s history and its potential impact in other economic, political, and even social arenas.

Rather than summarize Weber’s excellent history of open source (hereafter referred to as “OS”), I want to focus on four of the topics he sees as being of most importance: property, process, success, and non–software impact. There are many other important topics Weber discusses — organization, motivation, forking, and licensing — that are of great interest, but beyond the focus of this review.

Weber is not some rosy eyed technophile predicting the triumph of open source software over the dark empire of Redmond, Washington

Weber’s thesis is that OS software recasts the central characteristic of property:

“Property in open source is configured fundamentally around the right to distribute, not the right to exclude." (Weber, 1)

From this modest–sounding contention flows a torrent of opportunities with the potential for recasting economic, political, and social relationships across the globe. The potential impact of this new way of looking at property is so great because it represents a radical departure from the naturalized notion of owning something as being expressed most commonly in the negative: I own this item and enjoy its benefits; you do not own it and do not enjoy its benefits. OS questions this seemingly basic belief. “That is, what does it mean to own something? What rights does ownership confer upon whom and to what purpose?” (16) As Weber says, OS “radically inverts this core notion of property” (228). And, if you successfully invert conceptions of property, what does this say about the society that created that version of property? Before turning to OS’ impact beyond the world of software, it’s useful to examine Weber’s analysis of the OS process itself.

If you successfully invert conceptions of property, what does this say about the society that created that version of property?

In his discussion of OS, Weber states: “The essence of open source is not the software. It is the process by which software is created” (56). This is a foundational point he returns to repeatedly. Many of the characteristics of the OS process are tied in with issues such as motivation (62, 135–136, 186) and organization (65, 149, 167–168, 186). The process is voluntary with regard to both involvement in general and work focus in particular (62). OS is non–hierarchical (186), and it’s collaborative (82, 119). These qualities are more than just catchwords in a company prospectus. They are to a great degree the driving force behind OS’ success.

And, there can be no doubt that OS has become a success, regardless of the measuring stick used. Perhaps the easiest way to gauge this success is to look at Microsoft’s response to OS. An internal memo of August 1998 with the innocuous title of “Open Source Software: A (New?) Development Methodology” was leaked from the halls of Redmond and came to be known as the Halloween Document (126–127). Anyone familiar with the early history of personal computing can probably guess what Bill Gates’ reaction to OS would be. Given his infamous “Open Letter to Hobbyists” attacking them for freely distributing the version of BASIC he and Paul Allen created, one can surmise that his reaction to OS would be puzzlement, if not outright fear. The Halloween Document analyzed OS and determined that it was “a development process that was ‘long term credible’ and a ‘direct, short–term revenue and platform threat to Microsoft’” (126). Regardless of what the higher–ups in Microsoft thought of this potential threat, as Weber says, “What matters for the moment is simply that Microsoft was asking these questions [was it possible for the OS process truly to be successful and could it threaten Microsoft] in a serious way” (127).

In addition, Weber gives many concrete examples of OS’ success. The success of Linux–based companies such as VA Linux and Red Hat Software (198–199), and the considerable financial investment in OS software and hardware by giants such as IBM (126, 203), Netscape (122) and Sun (203) make clear the success of OS. Huge, hierarchical, global companies like IBM do not make US$1 billion commitments to ventures that they think might fail anytime soon.

Massive, hierarchical systems based on traditional notions of property are not going to transform into OS systems overnight, if at all

Of course, the success Weber describes has potential repercussions far beyond the realm of software development. If the open source process can (as has been shown) be used to create excellent, commercially viable software, then can it not also potentially be used in other creative processes as well? Weber poses this question and offers several possible answers, but reigns in his enthusiasm before it goes too far. This is an example of one of the book’s many strengths. Weber never falls prey to the hyperbole that surrounds any new and radically different system. He proposes potential applications of OS to areas beyond that of software (219, 223–225, 241–243, et al.) with admirable restraint: “The success of open source software clearly will have implications for industry structure and the shape of markets in computing and information processing” (219). He then goes on to state that “… the disruptive effects of the open source production process could be as great or greater outside the information sector, at first because of the increased efficiency of information processing that will affect many other activities, and second because of the spread of the model of production itself to other sectors of the economy" [emphasis added] (223).

Even when making the most daring of his hypotheses, Weber is cautious: “;Let me go out on a limb and suggest that those who see hints of a new class ideology developing around information technology are not necessarily wild–eyed” (247). This caution never comes across as indecisiveness. Weber clearly believes in the transformative potential of OS; he is merely being realistic. Massive, hierarchical systems based on traditional notions of property are not going to transform into OS systems overnight, if at all.

I found Weber’s take on OS’ potential for bridging the so–called Digital Divide to be refreshing as well: “Of course information technology and open source in particular is not a silver bullet for long–standing development issues; nothing is. But the transformative potential of computing does create new opportunities to make progress on development problems that have been intransigent” (254). Weber’s restraint here is much appreciated.

For the orthodox, faith is not a flexible code to be tweaked, but a fixed way of life handed down from a higher power (one higher than Linus Torvalds or even Bill Gates)

Weber does give examples of OS’ potential outside of software creation that go beyond mere modeling. I found his analysis of evolving religious beliefs and the new methods needed to combat world terrorism fascinating. Weber takes the example of religious beliefs in modern America and shows how "People take the religious ‘code,’ modify it, recombine it with pieces of code from elsewhere, and use the resulting product to scratch their spiritual itch” (229). This is one of his foundational points: “Change the foundations of property [property in this case being religious beliefs and/or texts], and you change the network of relationships that radiate outward from that which is owned, in fundamental and often unexpected ways” (Ibid.). Of course, for the orthodox, faith is not a flexible code to be tweaked, but a fixed way of life handed down from a higher power (one higher than Linus Torvalds or even Bill Gates).

Weber’s analysis of the interplay between governments and international terrorists is a more apt and effective example of OS outside the world of computers. “A national government [the United States], perhaps the largest and most hierarchical national government on earth, has declared war on a transnational network” (261). The difficulty involved in such an act is not merely one of quantity or scale — trying to use a flamethrower to destroy a fly hiding in a garden — but of quality. How can you declare war on something that lacks a leader or governmental body in any traditional sense? “It is a comforting fiction, but still a fiction, that Osama Bin Laden is the political equivalent of a president or king. Loosely coupled cell–like network structures sometimes act in coordination and sometimes not” (261).

As with any good academic, Weber ends with a call for more research (267, 269). He sees the development of accurate and successful models based on case studies as needed in order to make possible the study of OS systems. And, more importantly, the study of such models can then lead to their application in the creation of even more successful Open Source systems. — Rob Vega, User Services Librarian, Valparaiso University End of article

Copyright © 2005, First Monday.

Book review of Steven Weber’s The success of open source
by Rob Vega.
First Monday, Volume 10, Number 5 - 2 May 2005
http://www.firstmonday.dk/ojs/index.php/fm/article/view/1245/1165





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