HFOSS: Reviewing “What is Open Source?”, Steve Weber

What is Open Source? - Steve Weber
Steve Weber

This blog post is part of an assignment for my Humanitarian Free and Open Source Software Development course at the Rochester Institute of Technology. For this assignment, we are tasked with reading Chapter 3 of Steve Weber’s “The Success of Open Source“. The summary of the reading is found below.


  • Steve Weber, professor at the University of California, Berkeley


  • The Success of Open Source



  • August 22nd, 2005

The Gist

You’re in a social setting. Someone says “Hey, did you ever read X?” You quickly respond “Oh heck yeah! X was {awesome,terrible}!” The person next to you in the circle says “Oh snap, I didn’t read X. What was it about…?” You have exactly 3 lines, MAX, to prove you are not a hipster—and “The Gist” is those 3 lines.

Chapter 3 of “What is Open Source?” essentially aims to define what open source development is as a “thing”, describe the process in which it works, the problems it tries to solve, and how it does them. He lightly touches on many core concepts of open source, such as licensing, who is a contributor and what makes someone a contributor in open source, and how the new method of collaboration has positives and negatives—something that reflects human nature.

The Good

The three best things I took out of this excerpt were:

  • The eight general principles of what people do in the open source process (starting on pg. 73)
    • I thought this was a good analysis and breakdown of how things tend to work in open source, and is something I think I will end up referring to even in the future.
  • Analyzing Linus Torvalds’ role as the “Benevolent Dictator for Life” in the Linux project and how that is reflective of some open source communities
  • How exactly open source licensing tries to build a positive and open social structure beneficial to the user (pg. 85)
    • Licensing is something I’m passionate about in particular with open source, and the author’s words resounded with my own thoughts about licensing. It’s leaving me wanting to develop my own thoughts and opinions on open source licensing further.

The Bad

My least favorite things from this excerpt were:

  • BSD-style licenses are prohibitive to real collaboration (pg. 63)
    • I disagree with this, especially as it seems to have a particular favoring towards the GPL. While I may also represent the opposite bias, I don’t think these licenses necessarily make a project “not vitally collaborative on a very large scale” as the author states.
  • Principle #8 of the open source process: “Talk a lot” (pg. 81-82)
    • I agree, talking happens a lot in open source… on hot topic, controversial topics. Usually this happens on the development lists more than other things. But what are “other things”? For larger projects, there are more areas that are important, such as Marketing, Translations / Globalization, on-boarding new contributors, and more. There are not enough people talking in these groups. I think that strictly from a code perspective, topics are many and discussion is much. But on other areas of a project? Unless you have people being paid full-time to work on it, volunteers are far and few in between.
    • I also partly disagree with the vehemence of open source discussion. I do not think we can disagree lists like the Linux Kernel Mailing Lists are not the most friendly of places. But there are projects that have clearly defined codes of conduct and how to behave. In my experience in Fedora, the community was beyond welcoming to me when I began contributing, and I never experienced any of the harshness or close-mindedness that is sometimes associated with open-source development. I think the example the author used then may have been the norm, but over the years, I think others have seen that the harshness is not sustainable and closes the door on adding new, valuable insight from potential contributors, and they try to reflect this in their own projects.
  • Lastly, I hope dzho will let me pass on the third “bad” thing for the list, as the above two topics were the only things that distinctly stuck out to me.

The Questions

Three questions I had after reading the chapter were:

  • Eleven years have passed since the book was published. What does the author think of the open source scene in 2016?
  • In particular, are open source communities largely as harsh as he originally described or does he feel like a new era is beginning or begun in terms of the inclusiveness of open source projects?
  • What made you believe that BSD-style licenses are contradictory to real collaboration in open source?

Your Review

Imagine you are on Yelp, Amazon, eBay, Netflix, or any other online community that has customer reviews. This is the message that you want to leave behind, to represent yourself, and inform (or warn) others. You should add a quick rating system of your choosing (X/Y stars, X thumbs up) as part of the review.

★ ★ ★ ★ ☆

Overall, I rate this article four out of five stars. I think it did a fairly effective job of analyzing open source in the twenty-first century. While some small sections of the book may have changed in the eleven years since original publication, most of the content is still very much relevant and very much important. I would share this chapter with a friend or another student who was seriously considering getting involved with open source. That goes without saying, I might explicitly add a few extra comments of my own to the small subset of the chapter that I disagreed with.

Drop a line

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