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The Cathedral and the Bazaar by Eric Raymond

Read February 2022

I’ve heard about this book for years, and I think it’s an open source classic for a reason – Raymond articulates many of the reasons why open source development is capable of producing great results, often better than any commercial counterpart. However, probably because the book is more than 20 years old and open source has already become an accepted success, I didn’t find the book especially interesting; the arguments feel obvious and somewhat unnecessary at this point. But while its ideas aren’t particularly novel in 2022, The Cathedral and the Bazaar did get me thinking about why, despite its clear advantages, open source hasn’t taken over the commercial world.

Don’t get me wrong – I’m a big believer in open source, and I know that basically all technology, even proprietary software, is built on the shoulders of open source giants. But developing software openly, a la Netscape, hasn’t become the norm or even common for companies as Raymond seemed (to me) to predict it would; rather, open source is still largely the work of volunteers. Very few software developers make any money, let alone a living wage, from open source development.

I think Raymond, perhaps unknowingly, explained why open source isn’t a commercial success in the last section of his book, though. He claims that open source has joy as an advantage over proprietary software because open source developers self-select projects that they care about and want to work on, and I agree with him. To me, open source’s greatest strength is that it tends to be fueled by passion, and turning it into an economic exchange inevitably strips it of that strength.

Having said that, I hope I’m wrong. To me, open source development is clearly more efficient and would knock the pants right off of proprietary software if it could stop being something developers only did in their spare time. I hope someone can figure out a way to keep open source passion-driven while also paying open source developers so that they don’t have to work a day job writing proprietary software. My own experience has been that once software development becomes a paid activity, the fun factor goes way down simply because it transforms from something I choose to do to something I have to do, but I would love to find a way to change that.

[Last updated February 10, 2022]