Managing Open Source Projects
author Jan Sandred
publisher John Wiley & Sons
reviewer Stephanie Black
summary A HOWTO on putting the principles and advantages of Open Source programming to work.
There is a word for this book: SWEEEET!
It's short, too, but before you grumble about paying nearly 30 bucks for something that's less than 200 pages, you might want to look at the concept of quality. It's worth every blessed dime, plus taxes (if applicable).
Managing Open Source Projects opens with a history of the movement, thus providing background information and context to prospective or actual managers of Open Source projects. In this sense alone, Sandred has set himself apart from numerous other authors on the subject, providing an overview of a movement which has been over 30 years in the making, and whose restructuring of the "old-economy" is just beginning.
The development of the browser wars is dealt with in this history, a subject not everyone is familiar with. What it amounts to is a lesson in 'instant karma' that Netscape Inc. learned after doing a lot of damage to the Mosaic browser, ("mozilla" comes from "Mosaic killer"), and subsequently having the same done unto them by the Redmond Contingent™. Sandred sort of implies that this lesson had more than a cursory role in the 1998 opening of the Mozilla source code, which staggered the industry all round. Obviously, Netscape learned several somethings from the experience.
The author moves on to discuss the relevance of open source to business. (You knew *that* was coming, didn't you?). Sandred raises the common assumption of business known as Brooks' Law ('the performance of programming teams does not scale so as to increase the productivity of the team'), and then uses the history of Linux development to illustrate the inadequacy of this model in describing the open source development process. In sum, Sandred asserts that the differentiating factor is what he calls the "political attitude" of the open source model, which breeds a different leadership style. The "administrative overhead" required by each member of a development team may increase with each new developer, but without the geographic restrictions posed by a code farm, there is a wider base of "administrators" to choose from. (Now you know what to tell your boss.).
Chapters 8-10 cover a variety of tools useful (and commonly used) in building open source works, and methodologies used to set up the project (including the team). You've heard of Sourceforge, right? CVS? Or maybe "The Slashdot Effect"?
Highlights There are some portions of Managing Open Source Projects that are guaranteed "feel good" items which remind any open source developer of why we do what we do.
In his discussion of open source philosophy, Sandred points out that the viability of the open source model is not restricted to software:
"With computers, perfect copies of a digital work can easily be made, modified, and distributed by others, with no loss to the original work. Individuals interact and share informa- tion,and then react and build upon it; this is not only natural, it is also the only way for individuals to succeed in a commu- nity. In essence, the idea of open source is basic to the natural propagation of digital information among humans in a society. This is why the traditional notion of copyright does not really make sense on the Internet." (p. 52)
He points out that the United Nations has adopted an open source approach to distributed assets, including (especially) information. The link between democracy and freedom of information is clear, and iterated not only by Sandred, but by UN Secretary-General Kofi Annan, and Dr. Gro Harlem Brundtland, Secretary-General of the World Health Organization.
It's not "just" a software development model anymore.
Imperfections There are some small issues this writer has to take with Mr. Sandred's pronouncements, among them the following:
"All software cannot be developed open source. Open source software tends to concentrate on infrastructural design and back-end software. Open source benefits from incremental de- sign, which means back-end systems. End-user applications are hard to write. These applications deal with graphical user interfaces, which are very complex to write, almost always customized, and comprise other skills like graphical inter- face design." (p.160)
This writer would, upon reflection, argue with pretty much everything in this paragraph, save for the self-evident last statement. Both the GNOME and KDE projects are about providing desktop applications, and the managers to go with them. Most window managers provide applications to go with their "suites". There are productivity software suites in progress.
Ah, well, it's one bad moment of two in the entire book.
Mr. Sandred makes an unwitting gaffe in his discussion of "Five Open Source Commandments" in Chapter 12: the last of these reads 'Join a project rather than starting your own.' While joining another project is helpful, even useful, it does not replace the "developer's personal itch" that Sandred quotes from Eric Raymond's 19 lessons (Cathedral and the Bazaar, O'Reilly, 1999), in Chapter 2. Do both!
Conclusion Don't just sit there -- go get the book, even if you're not currently involved in, or planning on, managing an open source project. The information is timely, the pace is lively, and Sandred has provided a wealth of insight into the open source movement's past, present and future. While some of his work has perceptual errors, these are few. The rest of it is pure gold.