A Review of “Inside the Anthill: Open Source Means Business”

A recent radio broadcast on BBC Radio 4 (your grandmother's favourite radio station) entitled "Inside the Anthill: Open Source Means Business" was advertised as "Gerry Northam goes behind the scenes to investigate 'open source' computer software". (Spot the irony in going "behind the scenes" to investigate something that is done openly and transparently.) But let us immediately get one thing straight: the programme was mostly about the principles of openness and distributed collaborative projects in general, rather than exclusively about FLOSS. There is nothing wrong with that, of course, but I sympathize with the purist who finds it grating when the two are conflated. It also will not help the purist that the host does not get it quite right on occasion, such as by describing Linux as the first major open source project.

But still, this is radio for the generation of grandmother not Grand Theft Auto. Perhaps we should forgive some over-simplification? After all, the programme is clearly aimed at those who know little more than the phrase "open source" and who know it has something to do with computers. When the host is interviewing FLOSS developers (which is also when the programme is at its most interesting), he restricts his questions to the basics. The guys at Mozilla get the "why get involved?", "how do you co-ordinate it all?", and "who makes the decisions?" questions, while Linux, which seems to be held up as the exemplary FLOSS project, gets "why is it not more popular?", "are people paid?", and "where does the money come from?" The host promptly follows the money to IBM, and listens as members of the Linux Technology Centre give glimpses of their modus operandi.

After this, the show leaves the techies behind, and talks to people who apply the principle of open source outside of the computer world. We are treated to people from organizations like Wikipedia and Goldcorp, and from other observers, who give their predictions about open collaboration. Here is where my interest began to wane, because the talk starts to become a little woolly as the interviewees leave aside the specifics, and predict how businesses and governments will take the open principle and the new technology to become more democratic, cheaper, faster, better etc.

Finally, the show links back to its title by breaking down the analogy it set up in the first place (an open source project as a colony of ants), stating that a true anthill needs no hierarchy or centralized decision-making, things which are seen in the examples examined. (Think Linus and his lieutenants, or the guys who decide that Firefox needs to go to 3.5.)

In summary, being only half an hour in length, the programme could not have hoped to go into any real depth, but it may stoke the fires of general interest in the uninitiated listener.




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