Book review: After The Software Wars

I always purchase my books from bargain deals on Amazon.com and schedule them for reading at a monthly rate. I knew about Lulu.com self-publishing service from their first press releases, but I never found a book listing I was eager enough to order. The volume After The Software Wars caught my attention and tempted me to give both the author and publisher a try.

After The Software Wars, by Keith Curtis

After The Software Wars, Keith CurtisA French proverb says that “only imbeciles don’t change their mind”, meaning that only stubborn people aren’t open to questionning their preconceived ideas. Books about the clash between proprietary and open software always have a bias. But when a Microsoft veteran turns into a Linux enthusiast and decides to document his journey, the result is an improbable example of pertinence balanced with open-mindedness.

Without giving it much philosophical thought, Keith Curtis began his career in proprietary software after a talk with Microsoft co-founder and future award recipient Bill Gates. The programmer resigned a decade later out of boredom.

“This book is certainly not meant to be a bitter take on Microsoft’s future although I believe they are toast. I loved working there, learned an enormous amount, made a few shekels, and enjoyed the privilege of working alongside many brilliant minds. Like many things in life, it was fun while it lasted.”

Everything Curtis took for granted was turned upside down once he started exploring the free software philosophy. Writer’s note: The fact that netbooks preinstalled with Linux have appeared and sold out of Walmart shelves is a very bad omen indeed for Microsoft. Writing in a pragmatic and well-documented manner worthy of a programmer, Curtis gives a detailed account of the clash between proprietary and free software, and comments on the position taken by companies like Apple, Google, IBM, Microsoft or Sun. He attempts to draw conclusions from the success of collaborative projects such as Apache, Wikipedia, WordPress and GNU/Linux, which kernel is malleable enough to operate a smartphone or any of the servers running 60% of the Internet. Curtis also illustrates how the combination of antiquated languages, inadequate programming tools, proprietary development methods and closed formats are all keeping the economy from enjoying state of the art software. The author postulates that computer science should be collaborative like any other respectable scientific discipline.

The rationale is compelling and flows smoothly through most of the pages. When dissertating about computer science, the author does a remarkable job at balancing facts, figures and quotes from partisans of both sides of the spectrum. The book rests on the programmer’s opinion based on his observations, and he takes the opportunity to makes a plea in favor of openness and collaborative development in two fields he holds dear: politics and space exploration. These latter chapters seem concise in light of the rest of the volume: pages feature a 1962 John F. Kennedy Cold War speech justifying space exploration, sparingly commented quotes and a 9 paragraph-long excerpt from controversial best-selling author Anne Coulter.

Despite two chapters that somehow feel incompatible (pun intended) with the rest of the book, After The Software Wars is an insightful and constructive criticism of computer science, carefully crafted and extensively documented like good software code. Programmer Keith Curtis deconstructs preconceived ideas while providing clues and suggestions for bettering computer science; and it remains to be seen if the author can deliver the same credibility when venturing outside of his field of expertise.

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