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Archive for April 25th, 2007

Dreaming In Code

Dreaming In Code

Dreaming In Code – Two Dozen Programmers, Three Years, 4,732 Bugs, and One Quest for Transcendent Software written by Scott Rosenberg is my latest read.

Considering that I finished this book almost 10 days ago this review is a bit late. After I read the last page and closed the book, I had mixed feeling about the it. Scott’s writing is very engaging and obviously he did a lot of research for writing this book. Most of the readers of this book would be IT workers, but I guess Scott wanted non-programmers to understand the concepts he was talking about as well. This resulted in some parts of the books being a bit boring for me. Although I would give credit to the author for the most lucid explanation of technical terms, I would have liked the book more if it was more streamlined. I think books of this type should be less than 300 pages, ideally around 250 – concise and to the point. Ironically, I think, cutting out the fluff would have made this book in that range. Sometimes Scott moves between topics almost randomly to the casual reader. In spite of the minor shortcomings, the book provides some valuable insights into the current state of software development.

The book mainly revolves around the development of an open source PIM (Personal Information Manager) application, conceived and funded by Mitchell Kapor, the chairman of the Open Source Application Foundation (OSAF), the founder of Lotus Development Corp and the designer of Lotus-1-2-3 spreadsheet application. Mitch is a well respected person in the open source community for his vision and philanthropic initiatives. He is the board chair of the Mozilla Foundation which makes Firefox. He is an investor and board chair in Linden Lab which created SecondLife. He is also a board member in the Level Playing Field Institute (LPFI). In short, he has made his fortune and name in the software industry. Mitch was born in 1950 in Newyork and he came to Silicon Valley to work as a software consultant in 1978 roughly 7 years after taking in BA from Yale. In 1982 he co-founded the Lotus Development Corp. Here he created the Lotus-1-2-3 spreadsheet application which became a success. Later on he worked on the creation of a PIM application called Lotus Agenda. This application ignited a spark in Kapor’s mind which would later burn as a fire – the Chandler project. Chandler had ambitious targets. Kapor wanted it to be much more usable than an PIM applications available today. and he wanted it to run on Windows, Linux and Mac. It would have the spirit of Lotus Agenda in terms of flexibility and usability. It would be an open source initiative and he would invest $5 million in initial funding.

Scott Rosenberg, a writer, editor and co-founder of Salon, decided that he would be an embedded journalist for the Chandler project. Scott probably thought that it would take about an year for the 1.0 of Chandler to be released. He would write about how an ambitious Open Source exponent becomes the driving force in the creation of an application, opening new horizons in usability and flexibility while embracing the ideals of Free Software. Scott got much more than what he bargained for. He does a brilliant job of putting that down in Dreaming In Code.

To tell a long story short, Dreaming In Code started as Scott Rosenberg’s attempt to sketch a story of how to build a successful open source application but it evolved into a narrative of why and how things go wrong in a software development project. Scott followed the project for 3 years but in that period Chandler didn’t even reach the 1.0 milestone. Dreaming in Code is all about the hardships that Kapor and his developers faced during these 3 years designing and developing Chandler. Although Scott probably went out to write an Open Source success saga, the unexpected turn of events made the book far more valuable. It contains the true story of how an enthusiastic team, with few time and money constraints, faces and overcomes unforeseen issues – just like every other project that you and me has worked on. While reading the book, an empathetic reader would be able to identify the plight of the Chandler project. The disheartening lagging of release dates and inability to decide on one option among many haunted the project right from the early days. It is interesting and humbling to watch software gurus get tossed in the waters of an ambitious project. Sometimes things are far different from what we think they are. There is only one lesson that this book teaches you – developing software is hard.

I would rate it 4 stars.

P.S.

To follow the development of Chandler you can read the OSAF blog.

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