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22 of 24 people found the following review helpful
5.0 out of 5 stars 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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Showing 1-4 of 4 posts in this discussion
Initial post: Jun 13, 2009 12:48:28 PM PDT
Last edited by the author on Jun 13, 2009 4:35:52 PM PDT
In the book, Albert Einstein is cited: "It is every man's obligation to put back into the world at least the equivalent of what he takes out of it." And that's the point - most people don't. Most people are happy grabbing as much as they can, whether they need it or not, without wasting a single thought on fairness or giving an equal value in return. You can see them at "all you can eat" buffets, munching the triple amount of what would be healthy for them, just because of their sense of individual profit. And the like are downloading free software, whatever they can get, using it every day and paying nothing back.

I just don't see how free software can evolve reliable give and take models, if once it gets truly mainstream. Sure, at the moment it works in business scenarios, based on selling additional yet necessary service. But that won't work out with the man on the street. As software developers, we *have to* earn money with our engineering work. Giving away a product for free and merely relying on common sense to yield sufficient income e.g. based on donations will predictably fail in most cases. You know the case of the Ardour (an excellent and wide-spread free audio tool) lead developer? If not, read it here:

To cut a long story short: I don't believe that proprietary, closed software sold with restrictive copyrights will die some time soon. The human nature of greed -both of the suppliers and consumers- together with the sheer necessity to make a living simply doesn't harmonize with the free software ideals.

In reply to an earlier post on Mar 19, 2010 5:47:58 PM PDT
Last edited by the author on Feb 10, 2012 4:07:40 AM PST
Hi Hans;

There is no downside to giving out information. The all-you-can-eat buffet analogy doesn't apply because information can be copied infinitely for free today. Not everyone will give back, and not everyone can afford to give back the same. But it will work out. You need to trust your fellow man. When you stop someone on the street and ask for the time or directions, do you usually get helped?

Software is science. The number of people wanting to do real science is greater than those who want to do fake science. I don't believe you can really do proprietary software in the scientific way. How many more PhDs are studying the Linux kernel than the Windows kernel?

You can earn money doing software work in free software. There are many people using and improving free software and getting paid for it. I am. There are a great many free software codebases you can use to accomplish all kinds of tasks in computing.
The Ardour-type problems will be solved by another couple doublings of the Linux desktop marketshare. I agree that the free software community is too small and too inefficient. But that can change. Free software has lost the battle of ideas till now. Intelligent people like you don't trust it and therefore don't use it. It isn't just Microsoft that is proprietary. There is a lot of other as well.

Free software is completely compatible with people acting in their own self-interest. In fact, by the knowledge getting out more, it only increases possibilities to make for happier customers. Capitalism loves free things! Free software will be better for every kind of company but the proprietary software companies.

In reply to an earlier post on Mar 21, 2011 9:39:30 AM PDT
"You can earn money doing software work in free software. There are many people using and improving free software and getting paid for it. I am."

That's not really free then, is it? Somebody is paying you for your software work, the opposite of free software. Presumably, the people paying you are making money by selling something as well. (i.e. they are not in the free software business.)

In reply to an earlier post on Mar 23, 2011 4:52:01 PM PDT
Getting paid to use and write free software is not the opposite of free software and my book explains this more. Look at lawyers: they get paid, but their documents go into law libraries where they can be freely and infinitely copied. See the difference?
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