Published: 31/01/2002, Volume II2, No. 5790 Page 31

The Cathedral and the Bazaar By Eric S Raymond.

Publisher: O'Reilly. ISBN 0596001088. 256 pages.£11.99.

The History of the Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire By Edward Gibbon

Various editions: Penguin Classics. ISBN 0140437649. 848 page abridged.£9.99.

These days I spend a lot of time reading about IT, which can be a dry topic.But shining amid the aridity is Eric Raymond's The Cathedral and the Bazaar, which I re-read last week in preparation for a seminar I gave at University College London's medical informatics department.

Most people's reaction to open-source software (if they have even heard of it) is: 'What's the catch?'Raymond provides a plausible explanation of how the seemingly idealistic notion of softwaresharing makes technical and sociological sense.Writing as a participant anthropologist (he is no mean programmer himself ), Raymond explains how previous hierarchical approaches to software design and production - the 'cathedral'- are being superseded by rapidly evolving free software projects co-ordinated using the internet - the 'bazaar'.

Managers will perhaps be more interested in the accompanying essay, The Magic Cauldron, which explains how businesses find the model makes economic sense.

Raymond points out that though the most prevalent software business models use manufacturing metaphors in software, service metaphors are more appropriate since most software people spend their time customising components for the organisations they serve, rather than devising new components for sale.

And for a multitude of reasons - reliability, security, customisability - open-source software is superior to the proprietary offerings with which it competes.

Like the software it describes, the work is freely available on the internet (www. tuxedo. org/~esr/writings/cathe dral-bazaar/) though the O'Reillypublished hardback still proves superior in the bath.

I am one of those poor fools who believes that the impact of the internet is going to be bigger than that of the printing press, so last year seemed like a good time to begin Gibbon's Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire, first published in six volumes between 1776 and 1788.A more ambitious scope for a book is hard to conceive.And though it is not an accessible text by modern standards, Gibbon's humane and enlightened observation is endlessly rewarding.

A flavour: commenting on the Arian controversy that divided Christians in the time of Constantine, he observes: 'In the midst of their fierce contentions, they easily forgot the doubt which is recommended by philosophy, and the submission that is enjoined by religion.'

Quite so, and a welcome reminder in the fervent world of software development.Pencil in hand, I read a few pages each night in bed: quite soon the tumult of empire recedes; I fall soundly asleep.

Dr Douglas Carnall, Freelance GP, member of the Open Source Healthcare Alliance (which promotes the use of open-source software) and extremedistance cyclist.