A 9-year-old boy sits in a brilliantly bright yet empty white room.

The prodigy matures through wide-eyed consumption of wisdom from everything and everyone he encounters. And he encounters an eclectic bunch of mentors -- Penny Marshall ("Everything's about timing, kid"); Harvard professor Henry Louis Gates Jr. ("Sharing data is the first step toward community") and Muhammad Ali ("Speak your mind. Don't back down"). Unseen observers wonder at his promise and natural ability. "Does he have a name?" a woman asks, to which the man replies, "His name is Linux."

The television ad, arguably the most compelling technology ad since Apple's 1984 Super Bowl ad, is the centerpiece of IBM's optimistically themed "The future is open" campaign. The ads are more about perception than product -- open source software is important, infinitely malleable, here for the long term and allied with big tech companies.

Indeed, perception matters. In a memo to Microsoft employees, CEO Steve Ballmer wrote about company use of commissioned studies to defend against open source, "We are effectively using independent studies ... to change perceptions of the advantages of Windows over Linux."

The Center for Digital Government, while loath to engage in a war of the white papers, released Open Source, Open Government: An Executive Guide to Making Strategic Decisions about Open Source Software in Public Sector Service Delivery. We hope the document, underwritten by Novell, provides context for deciding whether and how to consider the role, if any, of open source in government.

Competing views on cost, functionality, support and security just scratch the surface as to the promise and aptitude of a more open future. Software users and buyers reasonably expect their providers to be open about security issues, interoperability, backward compatibility and migration plans that would otherwise be closely held as company secrets.

In their TV ads, Apple and IBM tempt us with a futuristic vision that frees us from the shackles of today, and that we have an active hand in shaping.

Massachusetts' public employees are the vanguard.

"Once they realized the shackles were off in terms of only deploying proprietary solutions built by non-state employees, the greenhouse sprouted a complete new set of organic applications," wrote Massachusetts CIO Peter Quinn in 21st Century Government: Digital Promise, Digital Reality, the latest installment in a book series from the National Electronic Commerce Coordinating Council (NECCC).

When the state declared it would incorporate open standards and open source in all future technology acquisitions, critics charged the commonwealth with "socializing the software industry, destroying intellectual property in its wake and undermining the pillars of our capitalistic economy."

In fact, intellectual property was fiercely defended and promoted, new private-sector players came to the table and newly developed applications are in production at costs one-third below market value. The code is available through the Government Open Code Collaborative Repository, a clearing-house others have talked about for a decade or more, but that Massachusetts actually built.

Quinn's deeper concern is that the road ahead for public-sector IT is a cul-de-sac without reform on four fronts: open funding that aligns the budget cycle with technology life cycles; open infrastructure that focuses on building it once and building it right; open design in government focused on the citizen; and an open civil service that makes public service an attractive career choice, addresses the retirement wave that already has come ashore and confronts what he calls the union practice of "defending the indefensible ... insistence on archaic work practices and ... continued stifling of job choice."

It ought to be good watching.

Paul W. Taylor  |  Contributing Writer