Book Review: Gates a man of his word

If you can be surprised by at least one thing in a book, it can't be half bad. The passage that caught my eye in Technomanifestos, was a reminder that Bill Gates is no recent foe to the ideas of openness.

Technomanifestos: Visions from the Information Revolutionaries by Adam Brate

(Texere, $75)

If you can be surprised by at least one thing in a book, it can't be half bad, I always think.

The passage that caught my eye in Technomanifestos, which traces the history of technology through the tracts of its visionaries from the 1940s, was a reminder that Bill Gates is no recent foe to the ideas of openness and widespread collaboration in software development. In 1976 Big Bill wrote "An Open Letter to Hobbyists" (it can be easily found on the internet) in which he pillories those who shamelessly copied the BASIC interpreter he had created, stating baldly that anyone sharing his and Paul Allen's work was stealing.

The letter, in which he claimed that such actions prevent good software from being written and that no one could afford to do professional work for nothing, did not go down well. But his attitude -- at least he's consistent -- has prevailed over the following 27 years and made a select few disgustingly rich.

The alternative view, most vividly embodied in the attitudes of the open source community and the manifestos of those trying to keep the internet uncensored, unfettered and unmonopolised, is that there is more than one way to create good, useful software.

These days, the battle lines are as clearly drawn as in Helm's Deep, but hearing the case for open source from the horse's mouth and not 10th-hand may help you decide whether you want to try it or stick to the soup-to-nuts menu of proprietary software. (It has to be acknowledged, though, that Bill Gates doesn't get his own section and isn't even mentioned until page 220. Clearly "Business at the Speed of Thought" didn't make the cut.)

You know the basic argument: proprietary software is often expensive and, say its detractors, full of bugs because only its privileged few creators get to see and polish its code. Whereas the thousands of eyes trained on open source often make for tighter, more battle-hardened code but may have less finish and produce few wares for mission-critical operations.

Why? Larry Wall, the creator of the open source and free Perl, is quoted herein as playfully determining the three chief virtues of a programmer as laziness, impatience and hubris. In a opinion piece last week our columnist Jon Udell suggested that developers, open source ones in particular, aren't that keen on finishing work, such as the fine user-facing coding and documentation. They like to impress other developers with kick-ass infrastructure work. If such comments come anywhere close to the truth, then those shiny interfaces and features-for-Africa will remain the province of proprietary software makers.

So the sections on open source and the legal tussles over the internet -- names like Stallman, Wall, Torvalds, Raymond and Lessig -- are possibly of most interest to IT strategists looking ahead a few years. The Wieners, Drexlers, Englebarts and Paperts from earlier in the century, meanwhile, may be skimmable for those who have studied information theory. Ditto cybernetics, feedback, library theory, AI, binary theory and entropy.

Still, Technomanifestos reminds that IT is a business driven by cycles. Many trends in IT -- such as the internet -- were forecast decades ago. And those who can't remember the past ... etc. In my reading, what might seem like revolution at the time is often more like evolution watched in fast-forward later on.

Adam Brate, a US technology writer, provides more detail than most probably want, but then those who skim -- perhaps he has the perfect audience in developers? -- can read the potted history at the back. But as with many of these specialist information management-types books, the stark facts of currency conversion will separate this from a must-read to a may-read.

Broatch edits the books pages of Computerworld.

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