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Diomidis Spinellis Publications


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Book Review: Software ecosystem: Understanding an Indispensable Technology and Industry

Diomidis Spinellis
Athens University of Economics and Business

David G. Messerschmitt and Clemens Szyperski
Software ecosystem: Understanding an Indispensable Technology and Industry
MIT Press, Cambridge, MA, 2003
424 pp.

Our society increasingly revolves around software-based products and services, yet few have attempted to examine the interdependencies that surround software’s inception, realization, marketing, use, and regulation. In the book “Software Ecosystem” Messerschmitt and Szyperski successfully adopt a holistic approach in their examination of the software industry and software technologies. After a brief overview of the most important features of information technology the two authors examine the scene through six different points of view, those associated with users, developers, managers, industrialists, policy experts, and economists. This division allows them to cover the outlook of the ubiquitous everyday software users, the developers who translate user’s needs into code, the managers and industrialists who allocate and orchestrate resources to develop, distribute, and deploy software, and those responsible for understanding the market and for setting appropriate policies for its operation.

The book successfully bridges the technological and business spheres, yet the emphasis is clearly placed on presenting and elucidating the technical aspects of each examined element rather than the ethical, social, economic, or legal debate surrounding it. I would therefore recommend the book as essential material for managers and entrepreneurs stepping into the information technology industry and as a textbook in the increasing number of technology-oriented management courses. However, the book will also be a useful eye-opener to hard-core software technologists and computer science students who have so far managed to ignore issues such as antitrust regulation, network effects, pricing, switching costs, total cost of ownership, and value chains. Readers using this book for serious study will appreciate the research and discussion issues listed at the end of each chapter, the numerous bibliographic references substantiating the text, the glossary, and the detailed index.

The book is choke-full of illuminating examples illustrating most of the points made in the text. However, as a reader familiar with the technical scene most of these examples illuminate, I would have preferred their text to be typeset in a way that would allow me to swiftly read through the main text without being interrupted by each example. Yet, for readers unfamiliar with the IT industry the examples are essential for morphing the abstract concepts described in the main text into concrete case studies.

Messerschmitt and Szyperski write in an authoritative, precise, and easy to understand style. Although the book covers a wide breadth, the writing is always clear, correct, and to the point. Many of the elements presented have important and sometimes controversial social, economic, and ethical dimensions. Although one would assume that the authors would have their own opinions in many of these matters, they consistently avoid to take an active stance, presenting a balanced overview of all sides of the argument and allowing the reader to be the final judge. A related matter concerns the way the book examines the powerful players of the software industry and the associated technologies. It is apparent that the authors try (perhaps too hard) to present all vendors in an equal light, typically listing their names in alphabetical order irrespective of their contribution, and seldom discussing the concrete disadvantages and failures of specific technologies. Bearing in mind that one of the book’s authors is associated with Microsoft Corporation this (overly) careful treatment is understandable, yet one is sometimes left with the feeling that a couple of advocating or critical remarks for or against some of the technologies or vendors would liven up a sometimes bland treatment.

A sign of a mature industry is a complete and sustainable ecosystem that forms around it; a sign of a mature discipline is the existence of a complete and authoritative textbook. The book “Software Ecosystem” successfully demonstrates the first and delivers the second.