Late reading of The Cathedral and the Bazaar

After watching the documentary revolution OS about the boom of linux and the FOSS (Free and Open Source Software) movement, I was inspired to read the somewhat seminal essay on the open source development model, “The Cathedral and the Bazaar”, by Eric S. Reymond (available here and later bundled with some more essays into a book – amazon link).

The essay is a somewhat geeky anecdote of both the success of the linux project and the author’s experimentation with using the open source development model on the fetchmail software program.  What, I found interesting was that that the essay actually made really good reading on the importance of building a network while you’re building something or doing business (not facebook friends, actual networks where people help each other out).  Most of the OSS observations that I read seem to think that it’s magic fairy dust that turns crap software into gold and where you can get people to update your outdated app that’s been underinvested in for many years.  The essay was primarily for software development but I think there are some useful lessons for anyone who wants to engage community in what they do.  Particularly, what I took out of the essay was that:

  • People need to value something to get involved. I think a lot of mainstream commentry about Linux’s success has been about how people prefer open systems and freedom of software usage, but I actually think that people just like better software.  You can see linux dominating in the web server and HPC sectors, where it is vastly superior to closed source systems, but still far from achieving market share in desktop markets (~1%).  Users value the software, a couple contribute and everyone is happy.
  • Lots of linkages are great, cultivate the few really valuable ones. Although having loose connections with hundreds or thousands of people are great, but the real value is to be had in cultivating a core network of people who will actually tell you when things aren’t going right or give you good ideas.  ESR (Eric’s tag) in this essay cultivates his core with an email list (the essay is pre-facebook era), who he is careful to keep motivated with chatty emails and genuine appreciation of input and feedback.

I’m sure there’s a lot more to take out of the essay, but I’ll stop there. I’d really love to figure out how you would apply (or even if it’s possible) some of the more interesting parts of the OSS business model to a more traditional business.  I know in my heart of hearts that command-and-control (and really all management is command-and-control in some way or form) isn’t the most effective way of running a business, but I can’t quite put together the whole picture of an alternative.


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