Book Review: The Success of Open Source

For the past few weeks I’ve been wrapped up reading Steven Weber’s The Success of Open Source. Published in 2004, it is a look at what the open source movement is and how it works, from the perspective of a political scientist. This is no trite look at why people would choose to give away the fruits of their labor. His analysis is serious and well considered. He stresses several times that his goal is to ask questions rather than answer them, but he does offer some observations about the open source movement as a larger social movement and how it might spread to other parts of the culture.

Weber starts out by explaining his goal for the book, to study the political and economic foundations of open source communities and processes. He makes two assertions, around which the rest of the book is framed:

  1. The open source phenomenon is an important “puzzle” for social scientists who study cooperation.
  2. OSS communities have been fundamentally impacted by the internet.

Early History

The second chapter covers the basic facts of the early history of open source, well before it was called that. From the PACT compiler project for IBM mainframes, through the failure of Multics, and the unintended consequence of the AT&T consent decree that lead to the original licensing terms for Unix, he covers some details that aren’t a part of the usual story that includes DARPA, BSD, the fragmentation of the Unix market, and FSF and the GNU project. The writing is engaging, and I could recommend the book on this history section alone.

How Does OSS Work?

Chapter 3 tries to answer the question, “What is Open Source and How Does It Work?”. It covers some essential software project characteristics such as the division of labor between “analyst” and “programmer” and how that historically lead to problems because the designer of software was too far removed from the end-user.

The essence of software design, like the writing of poetry, is a creative process. The role of technology and organization is to liberate that creativity to the greatest extent possible and to facilitate its translation into working code. Neither new technology nor a “better” division of labor can replace the creative essence that drives the project.

Weber builds on Brooke’s Law to say that success of a project isn’t just about getting more people involved, but also about how they are organized. He points out that open source is much more about the process than the resulting product, which is an artifact of the organization and creative energies of the participants. He identifies four fundamental organization schemes that repeat in open source projects:

  1. A hierarchy, where patches flow up to a more or less central maintainer, as with Linux.
  2. The concentric circles used by the BSD project, in which maintainers closer to the center have more rights and privileges, but within a circle they are essentially equal.
  3. The pumpkin holder or token-based system used by the developers of Perl.
  4. A democratic voting system, such as used to approve changes in Apache.

One assertion Weber makes relates to the different cultures that evolve around BSD vs. GPL-licensed projects. His claim is that core developers in BSD-licensed projects do not depend as much on submissions from the end user as GPL projects do. His evidence for this is the various BSD operating systems and Linux. I think his sample size is too small, though. I’m not convinced that the license has much to do with “dependence” on contributions. I think the attitude of the core developers, and their willingness to accept patches, is more important.

Evolution of Open Source

Chapter four talks about the “maturation” of three major projects (Linux, BSD, and Apache) as they evolved in the 1990’s, the “golden age” of open source. He covers several pivotal events during that period and how the community identities gelled as a result of passing through critical times like the fracturing of BSD and other Unixes, flame wars and other crises among the Linux maintainers, and the conflict caused by the “ideological passion” of Richard Stallman and the FSF. This chapter was an interesting retrospective and it really pulled together a cohesive picture of what happened that brought us to where we are today.

Motivation and Organization

Chapter five examines the microfoundations of open source made up of the motivations of individual contributors. For example, he says that open source developers self-select as a way to boost their egos by using acceptance of their code as a “signal” of its quality to developers who are not necessarily skilled enough to recognize quality on their own.

It is clearly the best programmers who have the strongest incentive to show others just how good they are. If you are mediocre, the last thing you want is for people to see your source code.

Ego boosting is one of 6 motivating factors he discusses, and is not necessarily the most important for most developers.

Chapter six looks at how individual developers come together to form groups and focus their creative energies with constructive contributions. He studies the social and economic pressures for and against forking a project, and comes to an interesting conclusion: The leader of a project needs the fellow contributors more than they need him. When a fork is created, the new leader has to convince potential followers that the new project will be better or more popular than the old one. So while forking may give the leader more visibility, that only works if he is successful at attracting followers, in which case he is just as likely to be a successful contributor to the original project.

No examination of open source software would be complete without a discussion of intellectual property law and how open source licenses work with various business models. Weber covers the way OSS subverts the traditional business model of vendor lock-in and leads to new models.

He starts with the models identified by Frank Hecker and Robert Young: support sellers (IBM); loss leaders (hardware vendors); sell it, free it (Netscape); accessorizing with books and training (O’Reilly); and service enabler (HP). Then he moves on to “less pure” models including BitKeeper’s delivery of “commercially crippled” versions; VA Linux’s web sites and conferences; and RedHat’s packaging and enterprise support model. He also covers companies that build commercial software on top of open source, such as Sun and Apple’s use of BSD in their operating systems.

The Code That Changed The World

Weber begins his final chapter by comparing the impact of OSS to the Japanese manufacturing innovations described in The Machine That Changed the World : The Story of Lean Production and re-emphasizing the importance of process over product.

The Toyota “system” was not a car, and it was not uniquely Japanese. … Open source is not a piece of software, and it is not unique to a group of hackers.

This leads in to the rest of the conclusion, where he brings together observations on intellectual property rights law, the limiting factors for specialization and division of labor and how they impact organizational structures, and the challenges of relating hierarchical versus network organizations. He also offers some observations about how open source techniques and attitudes can be applied directly in other fields such as family practice medicine and genomics.


Weber covers a lot of material, and his writing is clear, for the most part (especially for an academic :-). I enjoyed reading the first seven chapters, but got a little bogged down in the chapter eight. I was disappointed at his reluctance to draw more definite conclusions in a few cases, but by remaining neutral he was able to focus on framing several thought-provoking social and economic questions about the open source movement.