Government Moves Into the Open

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

by / January 24, 2005
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 common license for all open source software, but it is not the most common license for the most commonly used open source software," she explained.

While the differences between GPL and other types of open source licenses are complex, she urged the audience to spend time familiarizing themselves with the issues and risks that can occur should a government enter the field as an open source software developer. As just one example, she pointed out that states, unlike commercial software firms, cannot give 3rd party intellectual property infringement indemnification. Bottom line: make sure your jurisdiction's general counsel is well grounded in the nuances of open source licensing and it's impact on proprietary software licenses.

Growing Market Share

The summit, which was presented by the Center for Digital Government and Government Technology magazine and sponsored by Novell, attracted dozens of government officials from around the country and from Canada. They learned that open source is no longer just about Linux, the well-known operating system, but it is also about databases and other applications as well. It's even about Internet browsers. Firefox, released last year, gained market share from Microsoft's Explorer at the rate of one percent per month for the first five months of its availability, according to Matt Asay, Novell's director of Linux Business Office. Just about every popular open source product also showed significant growth curves. Meanwhile, IBM is pouring $2 billion into its marketing campaign for Linux.

Leon Shiman, president of Shiman Associates Inc., software architect for Linux and Unix and a founding member of X.Org, one of the oldest open source consortiums, pointed out that Europe and, in particular, the European public sector, has strongly embraced open source. He said the interest was partly due to Europe's desire to thwart America's sizeable lead in the technology market. It also has to do with Europe's willingness to embrace collaborative projects and support them with public money rather than let the marketplace decide which products will survive and prosper.

But Shiman sees a darker side to this trend. First, Europe's strong support for open source means that innovation is taking place overseas, not here in America. Second, the entire open source movement has been sustained by volunteers, but Shiman said many open source developers in America could no longer afford to continue to participate. As a result, they were either migrating to Europe, where the public sector is willing to pay for their work, or they were taking jobs in other fields.

Ready, Willing & Able?

The Center for Digital Government has polled the nation's state, city and county governments and found that less than 50 percent have set their IT standards and architectures across the enterprise. That lack of readiness will hold back adoption of open source, according to Paul Taylor, the Center's chief strategy officer. But he reminded the audience that open source isn't cool because it's free, "but because it's open." More importantly, "collaboration is the DNA of open source software." Collaboration enhances the quality of the software, he added.

But if free accessibility makes open source cool and collaboration is the genius behind it's rise, a number of government officials wondered if they had developers on staff who were ready, willing and able to participate in writing and sharing open source code on a volunteer basis. On one hand, Novell's Anderson said she was pleasantly surprised by the number of people on her staff who were contributing to open source initiatives during their off hours. But on the other hand, a government CIO pointed out that he had very few workers on staff who had the capability, let alone time, to contribute to open source development. Others agreed with that less than optimistic assessment.

Quinn best summed up the attitude government needs to take when it considers realm of open source by quoting from John F. Kennedy: "There are risks and costs to a program of action. But they are far less than the long-range risks and costs of comfortable inaction."