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The sophist and the open source baking farce

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Into the Valley One of the biggest threats to open source software has arisen from a most unlikely place - the food and beverage industry. Steve Gundrum, CEO of food engineering house Mattson, has teamed with sophist and celebrity author Malcolm Gladwell to bastardize the fundamental concepts behind open source software development, turning the OSS idea into nothing more than another term for inefficient collaboration.

Worse, the two gentlemen have opened a huge front for proprietary software advocates to rally around the cry that open source is just a trendy fad. And they did all this simply by baking a cookie.

In 2004, Gundrum set out to do something he claimed was revolutionary. Instead of having food scientists, chefs, marketeers and executives guide a new food product to development in the traditional way, Gundrum devised an experiment to try three "new" methods for creating a cookie. Gundrum, a software fan, centered one method around "open source" development, another around "extreme programming" and a third around more traditional, hierarchical product development. The goal at hand was for the three groups to come up with a cookie recipe that would deliver a yummy product that had 15 per cent better nutritional value than the average of the best-selling, major cookies.

An even larger goal was to create a quicker system for bringing new food and beverage products to market. According to Gundrum, it takes a little more than two years for the average new product to go through development, testing and then hit the store shelves. Food makers have relied on trusted models for developing products and don't have the freedom to tinker because of the constant push to roll out fresh edibles.

All of this seems fair enough until you start digging into it a little deeper. It's here that open source advocates should worry, as new businesses try to hijack a key philosophy to the software industry. The business types don't understand how open source software really works and when they try and fail to apply it elsewhere, it makes the FOSS crowd look inept.

Gladwell didn't do the OSS crowd any favors by publishing a puff piece on the "open source cookie" project in the New Yorker. The first clue that Gladwell's knowledge of open source is shallow is that he misspells Linux creator Linus Torvalds name throughout the entire piece, referring to him simply as Torvald, and classifies him as Norwegian when he's a Finn.

In the context of Mattson's Project Delta, "open source" development simply meant assembling an elite group of food scientists, chefs, marketing experts and food packaging gurus and having them collaborate on the creation of cookie.

"The roots of Project Delta are really in the development of software," Gundrum said, during a speech yesterday at the PARC facility in Palo Alto. "I started looking at code and thought to myself, 'Oh my god, this is a recipe.' You would essentially compile all the ingredients of a recipe and then you would send that mixture to a piece of hardware and you would end up with the product.

"Obviously, I had to take some license. It doesn't translate in a straight line at all."

No, it doesn't.

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