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For Fun and Profit: A History of the Free and Open Source Software Revolution

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The free and open source software movement, from its origins in hacker culture, through the development of GNU and Linux, to its commercial use today.

In the 1980s, there was a revolution with far-reaching consequences--a revolution to restore software freedom. In the early 1980s, after decades of making source code available with programs, most programmers ceased sharing code freely. A band of revolutionaries, self-described "hackers," challenged this new norm by building operating systems with source code that could be freely shared. In For Fun and Profit, Christopher Tozzi offers an account of the free and open source software (FOSS) revolution, from its origins as an obscure, marginal effort by a small group of programmers to the widespread commercial use of open source software today. Tozzi explains FOSS's historical trajectory, shaped by eccentric personalities--including Richard Stallman and Linus Torvalds--and driven both by ideology and pragmatism, by fun and profit.

Tozzi examines hacker culture and its influence on the Unix operating system, the reaction to Unix's commercialization, and the history of early Linux development. He describes the commercial boom that followed, when companies invested billions of dollars in products using FOSS operating systems; the subsequent tensions within the FOSS movement; and the battles with closed source software companies (especially Microsoft) that saw FOSS as a threat. Finally, Tozzi describes FOSS's current dominance in embedded computing, mobile devices, and the cloud, as well as its cultural and intellectual influence.

335 pages, Kindle Edition

Published August 4, 2017

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Displaying 1 - 5 of 5 reviews
Profile Image for Andy Oram.
478 reviews15 followers
August 3, 2018
Although many personal memoirs concerning particular free and open source (FOSS) projects have been penned by key contributors, and although numerous academic or popular books talk of the philosophy and economics of such projects, Tozzi is the first (to my knowledge) to produce a history of the field as a whole. The book is important and carefully researched. It's important to understand, though, the consequences of the focus Tozzi chose: the parallel development of the GNU software project and the Linux kernel. Although these are both important and proffer opportunities for Tozzi to teach the history and principles of open source, they are certainly not the be-all and end-all of free and open source development. Chapter 4, which is a bit diffuse and less central to Tozzi's thesis, remains important because it reminds us that a wide variety of FOSS has been created through a wide variety of development and distribution models. I also believe that his focus leads him to over-dramatize the debate over the terms "free" and "open source," a debate that generated a lot of rhetorical flares but didn't get in the way of important work.

Despite his extensive knowledge of computing and experience writing about free and open source software, Tozzi seems to approach it here from the outside in. For instance, he never hones in on the moral urgency behind the free software movement, whose dire predictions and jeremiads over the past couple decades have proven themselves in our modern understanding of surveillance and the sinister manipulation of public opinion done for marketing and political control. He treats the concern for freedom as an abstraction of interest only to programmers seeking source code. Luckily, he does manage to cover the main aspects of the movement's broader social impact during a section of the final chapter.

Overall, I was impressed at the obscure and significant details Tozzi has uncovered, and interested by his novel analysis of certain events. Most notable is his claim to understand why Linus Torvalds wrote Linux (no spoilers in this review).
Profile Image for Allan Olley.
235 reviews11 followers
April 1, 2022
A comprehensive account of free and open software from the lead up to the founding of the GNU project by Stallman to the time the book was written around 2016. The history attempts to come to grips with what defines free software, what its unique features are, sketch some of the factors that influenced its development and some its consequences. The whole story is told through the analogy of political revolutions particularly the French revolution. The shifting factions within the movement and the threats from without are spoken of in revolutionary terms.

Although it is a thorough account of what happened in the period in question it seems like it has too little about the historical context that lead to that situation. The argument is made that academic norms were vital to the hacker ethic that informed much free software, but no detailed examples of that academic ethic in practice were given. Although in some cases one gained insight to the thinking and concerns of actors, often their actions were a bit to distant and inscrutable. So the effect created was a bit flat. Not much technical detail is provided, but the book is based on extensive interviews with the principle actors (such as Richard Stallman and Linus Torvalds) either from others or by the author's own interviews and correspondence with them.

I read this as an ebook on a Kobo ereader. The footnote/endnote at the end of each chapter would not function properly and could not be previewed instead requiring you to jump to the section that contained the endnotes and jump back after reading. Also it seems like the font features (bold and heading characteristics etc.) may not have been converted to the format correctly as the section headings were the same font and size as the rest of the text with no bolding and were not larger than the other text etc.
16 reviews
May 25, 2018
This is a well-research, broad, and (mostly) impartial history of FOSS from the origin of Multics/Unix to the present day.

I will caution that the level of detail is exhaustive, especially as it relates to legal entanglements and licensing, and it took me quite a few sessions to get through given the relatively short length. However, despite the tedium, it's 100% worth the time and effort to read.
21 reviews2 followers
October 26, 2018
Decent overview of the major projects in the FLOSS movement. Too short. Ends abruptly. I think it doesn't explain well enough why the BSD, Linux, and Apache camps found the Gnu camp stiflingly ideological. What exactly is the appeal of actively avoiding the GPL? Does the GPL actually have a chilling effect that discourages adoption of free software?
Profile Image for Pablo Gallardo.
29 reviews2 followers
April 1, 2023
A necessary organized summarization of the history Unix-based operating systems and free and open-source software, spanning half a century. When most of the bibliography about Linux was published during its hype (early 2000s), "For fun and profit" also covers 2010s achievements like the overwhelming reception of Android or Microsoft embracing open-source, while analyzing current challenges.
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