in Books, Open Source

Dreaming in Code (review)

Salon’s Scott Rosenberg has written an elegant bird’s eye view of modern software development by observing the development of Chandler, an open source calendaring project. It was originally publicized as a way to kill the Exchange server hegemony in much the same way that Apache has dominated Microsoft’s IIS.

Yet as the subtitle says, “two dozen programmers, three years, 4,732 bugs, and one quest for transcendent software” hasn’t yet resulted in a product ready for general consumption.

The detours have been interesting. We witness the birth of PyLucene, as developers seek a full-text indexing solution that works with their unified repository. And perhaps CalDAV, soon to ship with OS X’s Leopard, will be the project’s legacy.

It’s a compelling vision: a type-agnostic program to manage email, calendar events, and contacts. Yet Google chose dis-integration with its calendar and Gmail. And Apple has made backend data integration possible, but has kept the individual applications separate.

As the project enters its third year, Rosenberg takes a detour into the history of software development. After surveying the hilltop, he makes a modest recommendation. Computer science programs should be more like MFA programs, which require students to study great works, share work, and revise constantly.

During this chapter, 37 Signals’s Getting Real methodology is held up, along with The Joel Test for software development as possible signposts on the road ahead. Since Ruby on Rails came from a simple tasks list, perhaps there is some life in Getting Real for complicated projects, too.

In fact, the scenery is often as enjoyable as the narrative. I was happy to learn that CivicSpace, a Drupal module/modification came from Chandler’s benevolent dictator-for-life, Mitch Kapor. An excerpt from the book is up at Technology Review that delves into the history of Hungarian notation.

As the Chandler project continues to take shape, one ponders the irony that if the developers had been using a completed program that fulfilled the dream, their project might be done already. The hardest software to finish may be that which measures time. Perhaps we need the next Proust to reinvent computer science. Until then, Dreaming in Code will have to suffice.

Dreaming in code Dreaming in code: two dozen programmers, three years, 4,732 bugs, and one quest for transcendent software

Scott Rosenberg; Crown Publishers 2007

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