Pytheas & the Problem of Phoenician Tin

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Pytheas & the Problem of Phoenician Tin: ancient lessons for navigating the high seas of Open Source software development, building library systems, and circumventing trade blockades
Art Rhyno, Leddy Library, University of Windsor


One of the most important and promising recent trends in technology has been the emergence of Open Source software. Loosely defined as a model of software development where applications are created and maintained by a community of developers, Open Source applications are made freely available in source form for modification and peer review.

Open Source is most closely identified with the Linux operating system, a flexible, high-quality system developed, distributed, and supported through the Open Source model. It is safe to say that anyone who has used the Internet has benefited from Open Source software. Linux is a popular choice for hosting Internet applications because of its strong stability and worldwide support structure. Other Open Source applications in widespread use include Apache, the most popular web server in the world.
Open Source is, in many ways, a reaction to the perception that consumers pay too much for commercial applications and don’t gain enough flexibility in the resulting product. Microsoft is most often blamed for this situation though there was also a time in the not so distant past when Bill Gates was the white knight leading everyone out of the dominance of the IBM empire. Of course, humans have been dealing with monopolies and trading inequities for far longer than the existence of the Department of Justice and shrink-wrapped software.
More than two millennia ago, the ancient Greeks were faced with a Phoenician blockade that was preventing direct access to the tin routes. As a result, the Greeks were forced to buy tin through overland suppliers at a premium price. The Greek colony of Massalia (now Marseilles) was particularly hard hit by this blockade. Massalia had no free access to the ocean, which was difficult for a colony that depended heavily on trade, and was squeezed not only by the supply problems that were caused by the blockade but also by the limits imposed by the Phoenicians in trying to set up contacts for trade with other lands.
Libraries are in a similar position as Massalia, but for acquiring software rather than tin. Like the citizens of Massalia, we know that this critical supply goes through a series of dealers and is sometimes marked up along the way. Library systems could be compared to the Phoenician tin used by the Massalians 23 centuries ago, in both cases, representing products that are vitally important for day to day operations, yet somewhat mysterious in their journey from source to deployment. Library system vendors must deal also with the consequences of IT supply lines, and most are almost as dependent on outside technologies as the market they sell to. If libraries can be compared to the Massalians, library system vendors may be much like the suppliers in the middle of the tin routes: not exactly an unprofitable position, yet far short of the returns that await those who control the blockades.

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