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Wednesday, December 22, 2004

"The Cathedral and The Bazaar" and Other Essays

As I got free from the second term, I rushed to the library to find something interesting to read. By chance, I found a copy of The Cathedral and The Bazaar by Eric S. Raymond. It was on my reading list for quite some time. I had tried reading the papers via the web but it's always very tiring and I had never been successful to read past a few paragraphs.

The book is a collection of papers written by Eric Raymond about the Open Source Initiative, Hackerdom, the value of such software and the motivation behind the effort required to create huge free software. In fact, he has presented "a set of theories" about how and why things work in the open source world.

It's interesting but I won't categorize it as a must read. Reading from cover to cover will only be interesting for people who are doing some kind of research on OSS, such as this one.

I'll like to provide an abstract of the papers collectively published in this book:

A Brief History of Hackerdom is a very quick overview of the early days of computing - how people started writing software and enjoyed the beauty of it. It goes back to 1961!

The Cathedral and The Bazaar is perhaps the most interesting amongst the essays. It compares the classical way of building software (the cathedral) and the distributed open source methodology with very loose control over things (the bazaar). It tells you how classical theories about software fail in the open source world. If you have time only for one of the essays, read this one.

Homesteading the Noosphere builds a theory about the culture of hackers. It gives some hints why people write free software by creating analogy with homesteading (I still don't know what a noosphere is). Amongst other results, it indicates that the motivation behind spending time on free software is analogous to the motivation for status in a gift-culture. Of course, such people should have already stopped worrying about the lowest levels in Maslow's pyramid of needs. The essay also answered a question that had bothered me for some time, "why don't people fork open source projects?"

The Magic Cauldron will be very interesting for people who want to know about the economic value of open source software. Eric Raymond also contemplates on when it is feasible to go open source.

Finally, The Revenge of the Hackers is how Mozilla came into being. Amongst all the OSS, I like Mozilla the most - though there are die-hard fans of Linux, Apache, MySQL, Open Office, Mono, and many others. But there is something magical about Mozilla. Eric says that Netscape folks later told him that their decision to go open source was inspired by his writings! In fact, the paper tells us that the author was also involved with MPL (Mozilla Public License) and the shift from the words "Free Software" to "Open Source."

However, I don't agree with some of the conclusions/ afterword. Mainly, I believe that he downgrades Windows 2000 a lot. Personally, I believe Windows is a great environment to build for. I also think that Windows 2000 and now XP have come a long way from the days of Windows NT and deserve at the least some respect from the hackers.

One of the most weird things that Eric says at the end is an answer to the question, "How can I become a hacker?" Instead of indicating the complexity of software, he motivates the reader to start by learning HTML! Though HTML is really a good start for beginners but one should clearly indicate that if the reader starts learning HTML perhaps only his/ her children would be able to hack real code.

All in all, Eric Raymond is a great writer. He chooses words very carefully and has a very sound abilitiy to see things at a meta-level.

مشکلیں جب بھی آ جایں گی، درد حد سے گزر جاءے گا
کوءی غم نہ پھر ھو گا مجھے گر خوابوں میں تم آو گے

("Bikhra Hoon Main" by Jal)

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