Hold the Back Page

On Eric S. Raymond's The Cathedral and The Bazaar

Extending the mnemonic, disyllabic fame of A&M (Hymns Ancient and Modern), S&M (don't ask) and K&R (Kernighan and Ritchie), I propose C&B for Eric S. Raymond's The Cathedral & The Bazaar, O'Reilly, 1999. Here's a book that will survive Guy Kawasaki's hyper-blurb: “The most important book about technology today, with implications that go far beyond programming.” It may even, in future editions, distance itself from Bob Young's foreword, written before the Linux Red Hat CEO started challenging Bill Gates as Mister Midas #1.

As a longstanding Jolt judge in the book category (since 1991, in fact, when Software Development magazine initiated these prestigious Academy-type awards; see note 1), I've been judiciously cautious in my reviewing strategy, resisting all but the most perverse publicational PR sexual enticements. My critical objectivity has been further strained by the fact that, over the years, I've been personally involved with many of the writers under scrutiny. Also, authors are more aware of the hard slog involved than are unpublished doryhores (see note 2) and tend to review with more sympathy and fewer sour grapes. A classic example from the early UNIX days was the late Professor Jim Joyce of UCB. He never, alas, got around to writing the “perfect” UNIX book, but gained infamy with his deflating reviews of other authors' attempts. Of one, he wrote, “I won't say there's a mistake on every page, but there are certainly more mistakes than pages.”

Yet in praising C&B, I swear I'm uninfluenced by a feeling of friendship and gratitude to Eric Raymond stretching back to his seminal work (with Guy L. Steele, Jr. and others) on the weird delights of hacker culture and its lexicon. (Eric also kindly reviewed my Devil's DP Dictionary back in 1981, and encouraged my update, The Computer Contradictionary (1995)--but again, I deny any cozy back scratching!)

C&B is, first off, a great read, written for a wide audience including many who when polled “Which OS do you use?” answer “What's an OS?” The main theme, as you must know, is the OSS (Open Source Software, see note 3) revolution: what, why, how and whence. In particular, the theme is the unpredictable successes of GNU, Linux and Apache, based on an approach that seems to defy the sacred rules of cathedral-capitalism (or what Radio Tirana used to call the “howling Wall Street jackals”, see Note 4).

The gist is that many thousands of programmers are contributing their time and skills on a voluntary, unpaid basis. The motivations vary, but one that Eric stresses is the traditional hacker egoboo (“egoboost”), and I suppose, an appearance on my new TV show, “Homes of the Poor and Famous”.

Even stranger, and generating mixed feelings among the OSS purists, is how OSS has, in many instances, formed a symbiotic relation with the big-money bottom-liners who are rushing to exploit the Linux phenomenon. (At the recent ACM2000 Awards, Apache won the coveted IBM Systems' prize.)

The wonderful thing about C&B, unlike the spate of bland software-development and people-ware books, is the violent controversy generated, some of which rises beyond the boring anecdotal to the exciting ad hominem. The most detailed attack on C&B has come from Bertrand Meyer (another esteemed friend, mon dieu), available at www.sdmagazine.com/features/2000/03/f4.shtml.

I've looked on OSS from both sides—and what strikes me is how often each side ignores ecumenical approaches from the other. Bertrand declares, “Accept that both commercial and free software have a role to play and that neither will ever go away.” Eric makes similar statements. But where's the controversial fun in that?


Stan Kelly-Bootle (skb@atdial.net) has been computing on and off since his EDSAC I (Cambridge University, UK) days in the 1950s. He has commented on the unchanging DP scene in many columns (“More than the effin' Parthenon”--Meilir Page-Jones) and books, including The Computer Contradictionary (MIT Press) and UNIX Complete (Sybex).