Technology on the Cheap Technology on the Cheap Design Department

Chris Anderson, editor-in-chief of Wired magazine, made a name for himself among technologists by questioning conventional wisdom. Whether it's his indifference to the Net neutrality debate or his thesis in the book, The Long Tail, that there's profit to be made in niche markets if obscure products are given large enough distribution.

So it was little wonder Anderson stirred the pot at a Connected Government symposium during the Conference on California's Future last spring in Sacramento, Calif., when he said government could do business much more cheaply than it typically does.

"We're talking about how to introduce these [Web 2.0] technologies more cheaply without having to go through the whole procurement process, and someone told me -- this may be true in terms of the state [California] as a whole -- that there was a $5,000 limit," Anderson said. "Anything above $5,000 had to go through a [procurement] approval process. I think that's a fantastic opportunity. What can you do for $5,000? What can you do for $4,999?"

"You can start a company ...," he began.

"Not much," deadpanned California Secretary of State Debra Bowen, answering Anderson's question.

"Well, I disagree," Anderson replied. "I've started two companies for less than that, each that are doing 1 million page views a month. Open source, hosted software -- you can do an amazing amount for less than $5,000."

Anderson's provocative claim is food for thought, because as some governments like California brace for deep budget cutbacks, cost-effective projections are certainly attractive.

But is keeping costs below the procurement threshold a realistic aim?

Beware the Back End

How do you do something for next to nothing? Governments are turning more to open source software, according to Deborah Bryant, public-sector communities manager of the Open Source Lab at Oregon State University. Though she said there isn't a quantifiable way to measure the trend, the evidence is anecdotal. She cited a few examples among many:

  • The Oregon Department of Human Services deployed SugarCRM, a mature, open source customer relationship management (CRM) software suite that's much cheaper than most CRM systems.
  • Some government-run Web sites, including that of Lowell, Mass., are based upon Plone, an open source content management system.
  • The U.S. Department of Defense (DoD) uses open source extensively, Bryant said. The DoD has underwritten studies of open source and an open technology road map.

There are other commonly used open source programs that are considered to be reliable and mature: Open Office, an office suite that includes a word processor, spreadsheet and presentation software; the Mozilla Firefox Web browser; the Linux Kernel operating system; GIMP, a bitmap image editor that some users claim rivals Adobe's ubiquitous Photoshop; and MySQL, an open source database.

Open source software, at first glance, appears to be a viable option to do things on the cheap: It's collaborative, constantly updated and most important -- free of charge. Or is it? Bryant said the notion is fading that open source means free.

"IT professionals have become pretty sophisticated about understanding the free [concept], and open source software has to do with flexibility from traditional licensing constraints, but not cost-free," Bryant said. "Everything -- every procurement process, every acquisition, every implementation -- has some kind of cost associated with it, whether it is proprietary or free. So there are opportunities to use this kind of software, and I think that increasingly you're seeing agencies going into this with their eyes open."

That's because though most open source software doesn't have a licensing fee associated with it, costs accrue over time related to staff training, support and maintenance. Bryant said the documentation included with some open source software is inadequate for users, which inevitably tacks on unforeseen

Matt Williams  |  Associate Editor