Open source software
Should governments choose open source software in order to encourage its use?
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Open-source software starts from a completely different viewpoint of how products should be created....
Open-source software starts from a completely different viewpoint of how products should be created. Rather than the building of a cathedral where everyone has their own clearly defined role and are instructed by a central pre-determined figure how to proceed, open-source software development is like a bazaar where everyone is engaged in the same activity but come at it from all sorts of directions (for instance, not all are selling, some are shoppers criticising or examining the wares) and create a cacophony out of which a more fluid product emerges. The basic advantage of open source software is that when users can read, redistribute, and modify the source code for a piece of software, it evolves. This means that users and programmers can improve, adapt and fix the software at a much faster pace than Microsoft or another closed source developer can match. This means better software which, critically, is adapted by the user to their particular needs. Monopolistic producers like Microsoft have an incentive to slow the pace of change, whereas the open source community will simply chose the best solution. Government should choose this software because it is more robust and more responsive to their changing needs than closed source alternatives.
While open source software may have originally been developed by a group of student programmers volunteering to improve a particular piece of software it has become increasingly commercial. It is now chiefly written by employees sponsored for their efforts by companies that think they will in some way benefit from the project. This has led to the gradual adoption of the ‘cathedral’ approach rather than the ‘bazaar’ model of organization. Yet the transformation has not been completed and the result is software which is not bug-proof but actually requires far more updates than the closed source alternatives. In fact the most successful open source software after the operating system Linux is Apache, an open-source web-server which holds around 70% of the global market, and MySQL, an open-source database, both of which are far from innovative but really just stripped down versions of closed source programs. Real innovation is driven by the profit motive and comes from the knowledge that a firm can capitalize on a discovery, as Google has with its search algorithm. For this reason the open source software movement is doomed to producing mediocrity. Governments choose IT systems for five to ten years and so should look to a reliable closed source solution which provides quality rather than buying into a nebulous idea of ‘moral software’.
While open source software is not always free, it tends to be significantly cheaper than closed sour...
While open source software is not always free, it tends to be significantly cheaper than closed source alternatives. For instance the Brazilian government’s decision to adopt open source software for its housing department in 2005 has saved it $120m a year. Given that around the world governments spend over $20bn a year on software, the potential for total cost savings is enormous. The money saved can be used to fund more important government expenditure like healthcare or education. Furthermore, simply by discussing adopting open source software, Microsoft has been forced to reduce its prices; it cut its prices by $35m to match Linux’s offering to the city of Munich, and was forced to offer to release a cheaper, stripped down version of its new operating system, Windows Vista, when Brazil began discussing its future software plans. Ultimately this not only helps governments but also helps Microsoft as many developing nations currently rely on pirated copies of Microsoft software which undermines attempts to stop copyright fraud.
Open source software is often confused with free software but in fact it is usually provided at some cost to the user. More importantly, if a Microsoft product fails a government IT department knows that it can rely on Microsoft for a patch or technical support, whereas with the open source software they are left waiting on a community to get round to tackling the problem. This has meant that governments which choose open source software have had to pay for expensive support packages, which makes the total cost of the IT solution similar to that of the closed source software. This has been to the advantage of major consultancy firms which are often chosen to put together IT solutions and who can make more money from pushing expensive support contracts than on upfront costs for software. The risk is that in the rush to find the software with the cheapest sticker price, governments will end up paying more overall for software without the range of support and features of the closed source alternatives.
Economists use the term ‘network effect’ to describe how if several users use the same program, it b...
Economists use the term ‘network effect’ to describe how if several users use the same program, it becomes more valuable for others to do so as well because they can then share and collaborate work using that software. This is one of the reasons why Microsoft’s monopoly of around 90% of the desktop market with its Windows and Office software has been so hard to challenge. Governments are one of the few organisations which can define the standards to be used in their states because citizens and businesses increasingly have to interact with government electronically. This occurred over network standards which the US Department of Defence defined in the 1970s. Today it forms the basis for Brazil’s Digital Inclusion Program which has selected open source software for 58 government units rather than Windows or Office. The result is that ordinary Brazilian citizens can use the same open source software at home knowing they will be able to interact with their government. Because open source software is often either free or cheaper than closed source alternatives, this saves the whole population money and enables wider uptake of computing.
The network effect is more complex than the idea that if a government uses a product everyone else will. This is true firstly because 90% of desktop PCs use Microsoft products and the cost for companies and citizens to transition from Microsoft to an open source alternative makes it prohibitive in the short term. Secondly, in the longer term open source software may be suitable for servers (where it has already made the most impact) which are managed by IT professionals, but for the average citizen or government worker, the concept of open source software which works on the basis of a constant flow of updates and minor changes would mean a need for continual training and re-training to keep up to date with the software. Open source software is being jumped on by some governments as a tool to attack Microsoft’s monopoly, but actually will only end up costing them time and money.
Even when governments do not ultimately select an open source program, simply by including them in c...
Even when governments do not ultimately select an open source program, simply by including them in competitive bidding processes they have been able to radically change the approach of Microsoft and other closed source companies. Under threat from Linux, Microsoft has launched the Open Source Initiative through which it shares elements of some of its programs’ source code with key partners to enable the development of software for platforms like Windows Mobile. More dramatically, in 2002 Real Networks opened up the source code for its world renowned RealPlayer, in 2005 IBM offered 500 key patents (out of 40,000), and Sun made its Solaris server operating system open source. Furthermore the concept of sharing source code has spread beyond the software development business, for instance recently the investment banks Dresdner Kleinwort Wasserstein and Barclays Global Investors released the source code for key programs that they use internally. If you accept that the open source software industry is a positive force, then simply by considering open source software, governments are doing good.
The first firm to shift to the open source approach was Netscape with its Navigator web browser because it was being outperformed by the closed source Microsoft Internet Explorer; Netscape made the shift out of desperation. That is exactly the same reason why Sun and Real have made their programs open source - Solaris was being squeezed by Windows and Linux, and RealPlayer by iTunes and Windows Media Player. Similarly the patents IBM is sharing and the narrow range of source code that Microsoft is opening up are in sectors where neither firm is dominant and where they hope they can leverage the volunteer programming community to improve their products. This is a shrewd business maneuver and not evidence of a sea-change in industry practice. Since Microsoft launched the Open Source Initiative it has not expanded it in response to other governments threatening to shift to open source software, so we should not view this as the beginning of a trend.
This is a matter of national security and sovereignty as well as of cost and effectiveness. Governm...
This is a matter of national security and sovereignty as well as of cost and effectiveness. Governments around the world are increasingly shifting their operations to computers and onto the internet, which has created a vast number of digital tax returns, criminal records, DNA databases and so on. At present access to and use of this information is dependent on private companies which design software to benefit their shareholders. Open source software hands control of the software needed to access that data to the government and nation itself and gives it the ability to shape the data and software based on its own interests. Given that Microsoft products have been the target of many well known security failings and viruses, by moving away from their products, governments can decrease the likelihood that crucial data will be compromised by a hacker or virus attack.
Even if closed source software firms are ultimately answerable to their shareholders, their shareholders want them to produce software which meets the needs of their customers so that they can sell their products. That is why Microsoft has offered a cheap version of Windows Vista to developing nations and has been willing to cut the price of its software in negotiations with governments around the world. The more worrying national security issue is that by definition the code for open source software is freely available. Until now hackers have often attacked Microsoft because it is seen as a malign force in the world, however many of those hackers view national governments in a similar light (certainly that is suggested by continual attempts to hack into government computer systems) and might well start to take advantage of the open source code to attack national computer systems. Even the company which defined itself in opposition to Microsoft, Google, is now coming under attack for being too commercial. If the same happened to, say, Linux, it would then provide a dangerous opportunity for terrorists to target critical IT systems, totally undermining national security.
As the demands of government IT departments become more and more complex, software developers are fo...
As the demands of government IT departments become more and more complex, software developers are forced to become increasingly specialized. Yet big firms like Microsoft often lack specialist depth which means governments are better off turning to the open source market where innovation and flexibility are built in. One area where this is particularly relevant to governments is language; Microsoft only supports 33 languages in Windows XP and around 20 in Office XP as they do not have the economic incentive to provide versions for other languages and dialects. Yet governments often need to provide access to information in dozens of languages and dialects (particularly in countries like Spain with regional languages like Catalan and Basque, or India with its 18 official languages and 1000 dialects). Open source software can easily be adapted to those languages. For instance OpenOffice has been adapted into 75 languages including Slovenian, Icelandic, Lao, Latvian, Welsh, Yiddish, Basque and Galician, and Indian languages such as Gujarati, Devanagari, Kannada and Malayalam. By using the open-source model of sharing the workload between many users, the Hungarian Foundation for Free Software was able to translate OpenOffice in three days with the help of just over a hundred programmers. By providing software specialized for the local market government can encourage greater IT usage by citizens, thereby increasing the skill level of the workforce and multiplying the cost savings made by shifting government services online.
Closed source software companies are more than capable of segmenting their products to reach each part of the market, for instance Microsoft is producing its new Windows Vista operating system in a record six different versions. Its monopoly of desktop computers ensures that if a programmer produces a niche software package or software translation for a specialized purpose, that programmer knows that potential clients will almost certainly be able to run the program if it is designed for Windows. If this monopoly is broken up and governments start to push Linux or other open source alternatives the programmer will either have to develop for two or more platforms, thereby increasing the cost of the final product, or have to gamble on a single platform; both options would reduce the likelihood of the niche solution reaching the clients that need it. Furthermore, while open source software does allow anyone to spot a potential market and customize software to sell to that market, that access is also its great undoing. This leaves projects open to abuse, either by well-meaning amateurs or intentional wreckers. Constant self-policing is required to ensure its quality. This has been seen most notably with Wikipedia where the freedom of the mob led to defamatory statements being written about the former editor of USA Today. Governments should be wary of relying on a rudderless ship to serve their IT needs.
Given governments’ ability to set the market standard through the network effect and the significanc...
Given governments’ ability to set the market standard through the network effect and the significance of its own purchasing power, choosing open source software is also a method of slowing the ‘patent-war’ which has erupted since the 1990s. The US Patent and Trademark Office (USPTO) approves more than 170,000 patents each year, a figure which is rising by 6% a year. Yet in a study M-CAM found that more than 30% of patents make duplicate claims, raising questions about their validity and hinting at a ticking litigation time bomb. The General Public License (GPL) for open source software provides an alternative which removes the patenting right from users or developers and instead encourages the sharing of ideas for collaborative benefit. The recent case of NTP, which successfully sued BlackBerry for infringing one of its patents for over $600m and which threatened to shut down the mobile communication device completely, shows how much disruption and damage could be caused if the software we rely on gets caught up in legal disputes.
Actually the number of patents being issued is a positive thing for software development and business, partly because they encourage investment in research and development as companies know they will have a legal fallback to protect the commercialization of their discoveries. More specifically the software industry works on a mutually assured destruction basis; for instance Google, Yahoo! and MSN are all reportedly infringing each other’s patents and therefore reducing the incentive for any one company to sue another. The General Public License (GPL) for open source software may say that any improvements to the software must be made available to all under the terms of the original license but there is little proven legal recourse to enforce this and the industry relies on a sense of ‘community spirit’. Given that this ‘community spirit’ is quickly disappearing as the industry becomes increasingly commercialized, mass investment by governments would only serve to tip it into oblivion and leave users in a worrying legal limbo.
What do you think?