Perhaps the clearest sign yet that open source has gone mainstream occurred last Thursday when a group of government officials met to discuss the technology and practically nothing was said about the fact that the software is free.

Many interesting points were made Thursday in Waltham, MA, at the National Government CIO Summit on Open Source, but the most important came towards the end of the meeting when Thom Rubel of Meta Group and Debra Anderson, CIO, Novell, both emphasized that open source is a compelling technology for the public sector because of the value it brings to the business needs of government agencies. Anderson pointed out that her budget has shrunk by one-third in the past three years -- much like public sector IT budgets -- but because of open source her staff is able to deliver the value that Novell's business units need to succeed in a highly competitive market.

Rubel explained that in order for open source to succeed in government, the public sector has to understand it's true worth. "It's not about lower cost, it's about business value and what it takes to achieve political outcomes," he said. Rubel reminded the audience that government first used computers to simply automate existing processes. It then used the Internet to place some of the same automated processes online. Little was done to change the value equation, he argued. But open source can change that if used in the right way. "Just don't over promise and don't make it an either-or proposition between open source and proprietary solutions," he cautioned.

Peter Quinn, CIO, Massachusetts, made the same point, emphasizing that his state's lead in understanding and adopting open source was not in reaction to the dominance of one or two proprietary vendors. Rather, it was an effort to face certain key facts in the world of IT and government. First, "the cost of government is not sustainable in its present form," he said. Second, software has increasingly become a commodity. Open source is accelerating that trend.

As a result, government no longer should be trapped into procuring expensive, customized solutions, he argued. While open source is attractive because of its lower upfront costs, the real value lies in the collaborative principles on which it has been developed. The more agencies and governments share open source applications, the less likely the public sector will end up having to pay for so many different solutions, wasting taxpayer money.

Some have branded the notion of developing and then sharing software for free as some form of communism. But Quinn argued that if one state developed a better electronic licensing system or voter registration system using open source and then shared it with other states, it was an exercise in democracy through the exchange of information in an open society underpinned by reliable technology.

As radical as that sounds, Quinn said the Government Open Source Collaborative he founded isn't out to challenge the commercial software industry but to take advantage of government innovation so that "we as technologists [can] finally break the back of the ineffectiveness, the inefficiency and the stupidity of the silos of information in government."

Legal Thorns

One of the thorniest issues government faces in regards to open source is licensing. Many assume that open source licensing is better than proprietary licensing, but that's not necessarily true, said Linda Hamel, general counsel for the Information Technology Division in Massachusetts. Open and proprietary licenses are different and both have their advantages and disadvantages.

She bemoaned the fact that few in government are familiar with open source licensing. For example, Hamel pointed out the common misconception that the general public license or GPL is the open source license. Not so. "The GPL is the most