The Success of Open Source

by Steven Weber


This is a recension of the book The Success of Open SourceRemote link by Steven WeberRemote link (Bookzilla hardbackRemote link, Bookzilla paperbackRemote link). Stefan Merten read the book.

Discuss the recension on its Wiki pageRemote link.

General impressions

A really great book! The book looks at the practice of Free Software projects and from this collects a lot of insights in how Free Software projects function. Then it presents these insights in a consistent framework. An essential thesis is that Free Software constituted a new notion of property and that this new notion of property results in new governance structures.

When I started reading the book I planned to quote some highlights and so marked interesting paragraphs on the margin. The problem is: Nearly every page has at least one such mark! This recension mainly consists of quotes from the book which I find most insightful or otherwise interesting. All the page numbers given are for the hardback version of the book.

I think for everyone who seriously wants to participate in Oekonux this book is a must-read. For Oekonux Chapter 5 about microfoundations of Free Software relates much to the term Selbstentfaltung which is something we already thought a lot about. Chapter 6 about macrofoundations of Free Software relates to what has been called the OHA problem in Oekonux. An area where we did not make substantial advances in the past. May be for seasoned Oekonux participants this is therefore one of the most interesting parts of the book.

Chapter 1: Property and the Problem of Software

The first chapter presents some initial questions and thesises.

About the importance of Free Software for a new society:

About three interesting questions for political economy:

About the importance of Linux as a certain artifact:

About perspectives on changes:

About the notion of property in Free Software:

Chapter 2: The Early History of Open Source

The first chapter about this chapter:

This chapter draws a very well-informed picture about the early days of computing and what this meant for Free Software. It tells about technological innovations and their impact on the way people think about computing. It emphasizes how much the way of thinking Unix - like strict modularization - is based on preformed the way of thinking about Free Software. From personal experience I agree with this analysis wholeheartedly.

The chapter also gives a good outline of the organizational background of Unix - i.e. the back and forth between AT&T, University of Berkeley, the upcoming Internet, Sun and so on. It also mentions the grassroots like the Homebrew Computer Club and also the Free Software Foundation. The chapter ends at the time when Linux started.

Chapter 3: What Is Open Source and How Does It Work?

The first chapter about this chapter:

About the importance of creativity for developing software:

About the central characteristics of Free Software:

About the distinction of division and distribution of labor:

About the importance of organization for the understanding of the success of Free Software:

The chapter then goes on to look at studies which try to find out which people contribute. One important result is that there are relatively few people who contribute a lot and relatively many people who contribute only one or two items. It then comes to the question of what these people actually do.

About the roots of the procedures:

These principles are:

  1. Make it interesting and make sure it happens
    Because all all contributions are voluntary people work in areas they find interesting. Those parts of software development which for most are less interesting must be made interesting by other means like public credit.
    Also because people do not want to waste their contribution they need to believe that their contributions are really used.
  2. Scratch an itch
    Put simply: Solve real problems people have.
  3. Minimize how many times you have to reinvent the wheel
  4. Solve problems through parallel work processes whenever possible
    What is meant here is that problems are solved in a evolutionary way where parallel developments are tried more or less independently and at some point one of them is selected to be followed further while others are dropped.
  5. Leverage the law of large numbers
    This means that to test your software in an optimal way you give it to as much users as possible to generate the maximum test patterns.
  6. Document what you do
    Documentation is necessary to transport the ideas contained in a piece of software from one mind to another - across space as well as across time.
  7. Release early and release often
  8. Talk a lot

For me pages 73-82 where these principles are laid down and explained are among the most interesting parts of the whole book.

On the question how Free Software developers collaborate the chapter mentions three empirical facts:

The chapter ends with the question on how open source developers resolve disagreements.

On the sources of conflict:

What constitutes the fundament for conflict resolution:

The chapter then describes a couple of variants of leadership. But it concludes:

The chapter continues with descriptions of a couple of decision-making schemes found in Free Software projects. Similar to leadership it concludes:

Chapter 4: A Maturing Model of Production

The first chapter about this chapter:

Indeed this chapter continues the history of Free Software from the early days of Linux close to the present (but probably before the huge success of Firefox). Again it is a well-informed text which picks up on many important events in the Free Software history.

Here are some quotes which express the principles which have been established during this time:

About how conflicts are carried out:

About reasons for shift of leadership:

About moral in Free Software:

Chapter 5: Explaining Open Source: Microfoundations

The first chapter about this chapter:

About the fields which need research and the way of thinking which is best suited for this research:

About altruism as an explanation:

About self-organization as an explanatory term:

Then the chapter goes on to explain two questions on the micro-level:

About the individual motivations the chapter then identifies six categories of motivation:

About art and beauty:

About job as vocation:

About the joint enemy:

About ego boosting:

About reputation:

About reputation as an alienated motivation:

About identity and belief systems:

After explaining these individual motivations the chapter then explains that these are important but alone can not explain the success of Free Software. Before the macrofoundations are researched in the next chapter some light is shed on the economic logic of the collective good.

The chapter tells that the notion of gift economy which some use to explain Free Software is built on abundance. However:

It's clear that it is not the abundance in computing power and bandwidth. Instead:

The chapter then goes on to look at the economic logic from the perspective of scarcity:

About Rishab Ayer Ghosh's cooking pot model explaining the economics of Free Software as a sort of non-direct exchange:

The chapter than develops the notion of an anti-rival good:

Chapter 6: Explaining Open Source: Macrofoundations

The first chapter about this chapter:

So this chapter is first about how the coordination in Free Software functions and second what the governance schemes are and how they function.

The abstract answer to the coordination problem:

The chapter goes on to look at each of these elements.

About the (non-)incentives to fork:

About norms and their general definition:

A first core set of norms is about "ownership customs":

A second core set of norms is about decision-making roles:

A third core set of norms is about technical rationality:

About the importance of technical rationality compared to moral arguments:

About leadership practices in big projects (here citing the example of Linux / Linus Torvalds):

About when leadership fails:

Two examples of ineffective moderation are listed. A leader can fail

However, failures in leadership are to be distinguished from a fork for technical reasons:

The second part of the chapter is about how complexity is governed. It starts with a definition of governance as it is used by the author and poses the core question:

The chapter then talks about these four elements. About technical design:

One example for this modularization in Linux is the invention of kernel modules as a way to separate a at first monolithic, huge program into a number of small, cooperating modules:

This is also formulated as Conway's Law:

The second element is sanctioning:

About flaming and shunning as sanctioning mechanisms:

The third element is about licenses as social structure:

While looking at the Debian social contract this part also contains a statement about meritocracy:

The fourth element is about formal governance structures:

The chapter closes with this summary:

Chapter 7: Business Models and the Law

The first chapter about this chapter:

The chapter outlines the general relationship between producers and users of software and how Free Software impacts here. It then goes through a couple of business models around Free Software and continues to reflect a number of examples where capitalist business and Free Software are in close contact. It touches a couple of topics around several intellectual property concepts and closes with formulating questions for the future.

Chapter 8: The Code That Changed The World?

The first chapter about this chapter:

This quote nicely summarizes the meaning of open source as it is understood in this chapter:

The chapter goes on to look at aspects mentioned here. It starts with looking once more at the notion of property. From this part I'd like to quote one very interesting comparison of changing property rights in a wider sense. Here the notion of property rights in stewardship combined with distribution is looked at:

The part about property concludes:

The next part of the chapter is about organizing for distributed innovation. A key notion is that of end-to-end innovation:

However, end-to-end innovation needs organization to work properly:

This part concludes:

The next part thinks about the role of commons in economic and social life. It mentions Garrett Hardin's "tragedy of the commons" but gives a couple of points why this is not the only possible way to think about commons:

The part concludes:

The next parts talks about the opportunities of Free Software for developing countries.

The following part is about power, transaction costs, and community. It starts with outlining that the connectivity of the Internet and the processing power of modern computers is often seen with a market exchange in mind. From this I'd like to quote a very nice point about the meaning of a price such an environment:

The next part of this chapter thinks about networks, hierarchies, and the interface. It argues that the interface between a network and a hierarchy is typically a very creative place:

The final part of the final chapter is about generalizing open source:

The book closes by outlining these conditions:

Which expresses the research challenge of Oekonux quite well :-) . In fact I think the characteristics Steven Weber outlines are a very useful additional set of criteria to think about when thinking about a germ form.