On the XO Laptop

XO Axiom #2: Open-source is the scientific model applied to programming

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We continue our series on what I take to be axioms, or self-evident truths, when it comes to using and learning about the XO Laptop. The first axiom can be found at XO Axiom #1: The XO Laptop is a general-purpose Linux computer with builtin network access capabilities.

Linux is an example of what is called “open-source” or “free software.” This is software that can be had at no cost, which to many people suggests that it is of little value. Though this is indeed the case from time to time, there is a large body of quite exceptional software that is both freely available yet has a high value. The XO Laptop is built entirely of such software, so let me share my own short definition.

Many people have attempted to define just what “open-source” and the related concept of “free software” mean. Much of this writing is quite muddled, especially by those folks who think that programming is not just a specialized form of writing, but is somehow something much more. A good example of such muddled writing can be found in Wikipedia’s effort, Open source.

My own experience, based on almost a decade both writing open-source software and providing education about it to others, is that the best working definition is to simply think of open-source as the application of the scientific model to the art and science of programming.

When you see a project humming along then if you dig into it you will most likely find that everything is being done as if were a joint scientific research effort, with open collaboration, peer review, open publication, no artificial authority, and so forth.

On the other hand, when you hear reports that something is not going well, or someone takes an action that you can’t quite figure out, then if you dig into it will you probably find evidence of behavior that is not consistent with the scientific model. For example, I recently wrote a series of posts about a something that was not going well. I wrote them not because I had any special interest or stake in the project, but just as an example of how things can go wrong. You can find them beginning at OpenDS: On Being Bitten By The Hand That Once Fed You; there are four posts, and each links to its successor. I expect that if you read them all you will agree with me that the root problem was the failure to follow the scientific model in that there was an arbitrary use of power.

Another way of looking at this is that while software is indeed a form of writing, to be done well it must be done as part of a collective collaborative effort, so that success is possible only if the work is done as a team. It is as thus as important to manage the relationships amongst the team members as it is to orchestrate the code itself.


Written by daveshields

January 2, 2008 at 2:25 am

Posted in xo-laptop

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