I usually don’t find much value in reading technology books that are more than a few years old. The industry changes so rapidly that most of the ideas and examples are already irrelevant. With this in mind, The Cathedral and the Bazaar by Eric S. Raymond should be outdated many times over. It was written in 1999. Before Y2K. 8 years before the iPhone. Before Wikipedia.
But this book is different. It’s not just about technology. It’s about a mindset around technology. In particular, it’s about the open source development mindset.
Broadly speaking, there are two main ways to create software – closed source and open source. Closed source usually entails a company creating a software program using in-house talent. The source code for the program is kept locked up so as not to reveal the magic behind the program. Open source development releases an original version of software into the wild and makes it possible for people around the world to contribute to and improve a piece of software.
In this book, closed source is described as a cathedral development model and open source as a bazaar development model. A cathedral is largely centrally planned. It takes a long time to create. It’s not very open to change. If you build the Notre Dame Cathedral on the Île de la Cité in Paris, you’re not going to pick it up and move it across the Seine if necessary.
Open source is described as the bazaar development model. The bazaar is lively and consists of a variety of buyers and sellers. If the bazaar is set up in an undesirable location, it can be moved to another side of the city in as little as a week. It’s flexible and can quickly be adjusted to meet the needs of the buyers and sellers.
I’m always amazed when I see closed and open source decisions presented to my clients. For example, a few years ago, one of my university clients was making the choice of what content management system to use for their website. One was a closed source option and the other an open source option. The closed source option cost $10k a website. A university puts out a ton of websites, so using the closed source option was costing them a ton of money. But it was also costing them a ton in lost functionality. At most, this closed source option had 10 developers working on the software. The open source solution was free to use and had thousands of people around the world continually perfecting it. I wrote more about this choice in this blog post.
Eric Raymond had a great quote in this book about this choice (remember, this was back in 1999):
The logic is compelling; closed source code is an unacceptable strategic business risk. So much so that I believe it will not be very long until closed-source single-vendor acquisitions will be viewed as fiduciary irresponsibility when there is an open-source alternative.
It was very interesting to read this book because it came out before the creation of Wikipedia and WordPress, along with a variety of other open source projects. This book has been called a manifesto for the open source movement, a “shot heard around the world” that got people thinking about development in a new way. I recommend the book, even though it is 17 years old. Along with Hackers, it’s one of those books that helps you see the path we have taken with technology.