22 of 24 people found the following review helpful
A Better Future for Software
, April 25, 2009
This review is from: After the Software Wars (Paperback)
The existence of free software is an anomaly. It does not fit our assumptions about what must be private property and what should be free to all. Keith Curtis's After the Software Wars is hard to put down because it makes a passionate case that software should be treated like the free exchange of ideas in the world of science. The book manages to consistently upset our industrial age assumptions about proprietary software. Many, including myself, would point out that the demise of proprietary software is not a done deal and would argue that software is a combination of freely exchanged science and proprietary applied science. But Curtis's argument is based in experience (11 years programming at Microsoft) and like a good lawyer arguing one side of a case he forces us to consider the merits of his position.To interested computer users like myself who are not programmers, he convincingly peels back the layers of the software development process so that we can see the strengths of free software (and the weaknesses of proprietary software) very clearly indeed.
During his time at Microsoft Curtis saw Windows struggle with the expensive limitations of the closed industrial model while its free rival - Linux - consistently improved relative to Windows to the point where he is now quite happy to use only Linux. (I have used it as my main operating system for over a year and agree it compares favorable to Windows in most ways). The book is also timely because it asks us to take seriously a clearly less expensive and arguably better approach to software development at a time when economic stress makes it particularly relevant to do so.
While the Linux phenomena tells us that the assumptions of the industrial age don't work for software, it doesn't necessarily tell us where the open model is most important or essential to progress. Linux may or may not go on to 'world domination' as Curtis puts it - Microsoft is making a serious comeback just now with Windows 7 and remains dominant with over 90% of the world's desktops despite shooting itself in the foot with Vista. Still, After the Software Wars makes it much easier to appreciate the enormous difficulties Microsoft faces trying to maintain a secure and smoothly functioning operating system using the proprietary model.
In the second half of After the Software Wars Curtis turns his attention to programming languages, and demonstrates where the proprietary model may well be holding us back in a more fundamental and critical way. He makes the case that the dominant C and C++ programming languages are obsolete and worse - disastrously inefficient. Neither are proprietary which may partly explain why they continue to dominate software development despite their origins in the technology of the 70s. For example, Curtis explains how they suffer from serious limitations such as failure to clean up memory after use (programmers call it garbage collection) which in turn is a major source of bugs requiring endless further work. However, in terms of the free versus propriety dilemma I think his most telling example is his account of how Sun and Microsoft fought to control Java and ruined its chances of becoming a more efficient replacement for the older languages. The implication is clear - developing an up to date, open source, programming language may be more urgent and necessary than even the adoption of Linux.
Speaking for myself as an observer of the interaction of society and technology in the McLuhan tradition I see the simple existence of free software as requiring a change in how we divide what is held in common from what is proprietary. Just as movable type contained a core idea of the industrial revolution - interchangeable parts - I think that free software will eventually compel a new understanding of what divides common from private property.
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