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Code2 / Great Thinker
June 30, 2022
BOOK REVIEW - 'How Open Source Ate Software: Understand The Open Source Movement and So Much More’ by Gordon Haff

BOOK REVIEW - 'How Open Source Ate Software: Understand The Open Source Movement and So Much More’ by Gordon Haff🔗

There was a time when open-source software was known by just a small group of coders. It has moved on from days when it was the free software advocated by a few tech geeks to an era where it now undergirds mission-critical public and private platforms. This month's book, How Open Source Ate Software: Understand The Open Source Movement and So Much More, by Gordon Haff, sheds light on how this transformation took place and what kind of ramifications it had on the software industry at large.

Been there, done that🔗

The author of the book, Gordon Haff, is a tech guru and Red Hat evangelist with decades of experience in product development. Open source has been at the center of his professional life as he worked, wrote, and talked on this topic for years. How Open Source Ate Software, a definite reference to Marc Andreessen's oft-cited words, is a book on open-source software and the new software industry. As he talks about open source, Haff is actually analyzing the transformation the software industry underwent from software as an add-on used to sell more hardware to closed-source, proprietary software to software as a commodity.

A new way of developing software🔗

In his book, Haff regards open source as "a broader movement for organization, collaboration, innovation, and development," as opposed to the narrower sense associated with people's right to access free software. Open source turned out to be a disruptor that changed the way software was developed. From Haff's account, one gets the impression that the emergence of open source, and Linux in particular, was an inevitable outcome. The rise of the Internet had changed everything and Microsoft, the king of the software market at the time, was slow to react to this change. If it weren't for Linus Torvalds, some other coder would take advantage of this window of opportunity. This position is supported by a quote from Bryan Cantrill, an engineer and co-founder of Oxide Computer, who says:

"I think if it's not Linux, it would have been one of the BSD variants that would have been the de facto Unix on x86. It is the rise of the Internet, and it is the rise of SMP [symmetrical multiprocessing] to a lesser degree, and then the rise of commodity microprocessors as the highest performing microprocessors to which Linux grabbed a ride, drafted on those economic mega-trends, but did not really contribute to them."

Open source can be a confusing concept for regular folks to understand. First, just because some software is open-source doesn't mean it is free of charge. Red Hat, the company Haff has worked for since 2010, illustrates this point. Secondly, "open" does not mean "vulnerable." On the contrary, contributions from elite developers all over the world make a project more resilient. Thirdly, there is the issue of open-source licenses. Why would you need to use something that is seemingly open and free? Haff does a good job of touching upon topics like these and explaining them to the uninitiated.

Only selectively open🔗

Haff also draws attention to a problem that might have far more serious ramifications for our society today than whether some piece of code is open or proprietary. He highlights that companies like Google and Facebook are rather enthusiastic about open-sourcing their code, but they are much more reluctant when it comes to sharing their data. The two tech giants, often criticized for the morally questionable methods they employ to gather data, are effectively using their open-source contributions for a charm offensive to present a better image. They have achieved this without compromising the opaqueness of how they gather and handle data, which happens to be our data.

However, the book isn't without its flaws. Its layout is a little confusing, as it usually happens when you try to blend a chronological narrative with a subject-based approach. The author spends page after page giving his readers tips on how to name a product in another section. He delves into topics such as the history of software, open data, open education, open hardware, and open culture, which are only tangentially related to open source while wrapping up the book. In that sense, the book sometimes feels like a collage of excerpts brought together from different texts or speeches and lacks coherence.

Final thoughts🔗

Still, How Open Source Ate Software is worth a read to understand and appreciate how open source has evolved, changing our lives in the meantime. After all, it is one of the most unlikely stories in the tech world: A modern version of the well-known biblical story of David and Goliath, but with a different ending. This time, the flimsy David doesn't go so far as to destroy the giant but befriends him after teaching him a lesson. By first proving its mettle and then winning over the hearts and minds of everyone, including software companies whose livelihood depended on proprietary software, what open-source software has achieved so far is no less impressive than what David did.

Book Review Open-source Innovation