Tuesday, April 1, 2008

GNU/Linux/Open Source History

I just got a book from the library that I came across in an encyclopedia called The Cathedral and the Bazaar by Eric S. Raymond and started reading it last night. I mentioned in an earlier post that there seems to be a dearth of published (non-web) works about the history of open source software, and this is one of the only ones, and though I was not familiar with it, it is very well known. It was originally an essay posted on the web, and includes other apparently notable essays from the time. The main metaphor of the book evokes two images to contrast closed-source and open-source software development. The corporation method is like the builders of a cathedral - elites who work in secret and unveil their product with great fanfare, while the open source model, which is done in public view and employs anyone who's interested, resembles a chaotic bazaar. Both images have positive and negative aspects. The thing about the current state of Windows, Apple, and GNU/Linux distributions is that the bazaar has caught up with the cathedral.

Compare the reactions from both the public and the press (at least initially) to the releases of Windows Vista and Ubuntu 7.10 last year. You can see the bazaar in action now, with Ubuntu's beta release of 8.04 "Hardy Heron." Critics and programmers are finding problems that will almost certainly be addressed by the final release. One of the most memorable lines in "The Cathedral and the Bazaar" is "Given enough eyeballs, all bugs are shallow," which Raymond attributes to Linus Torvalds. Trapped by the cathedral model, Vista faced much negativity and ridicule with the need for "patches" and "service packs" almost immediately. A large open-source community would have almost certainly found these problems before the release.

I said just a few short weeks ago that my interest in Linux and open source software is not political, but I'm finding myself faced with the undeniable reality that moving to an open source way of doing things has made me evolve in my thinking (I'm working on another post about this transformation, which I'm finding difficult to describe), and my opinions about companies that still claim to own products that I have purchased have moved further toward the "free" software philosophy. Expect more about this as I read on!

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