Editor's Note: This article originally appeared in the October 2008 print issue of Government Technology as Blurring the Lines.

 

"I wouldn't say that it is Microsoft making its peace with the open source community," said my friend Stuart McKee, national technology officer of state and local government at Microsoft, "but it is a microcosm of an awakening and maturing on all sides."

We were talking about Open eGov, the open source content management software developed by Newport News, Va., and subsequently merged with PloneGov, a repository of sharable software, with the participation of 55 other government organizations around the world.

"I agree with Stuart. It is a sign of maturity in the software market," said Andy Stein, IT director of Newport News and champion of the Open eGov collaboration. "It is the responsible thing to do."

Stein takes seriously his responsibility to expand capacity, share broadly and advocate for what he calls "fair and equitable cost sharing." That is all consistent with the tenets of the open source movement, but none of it is inconsistent with close ties -- organizationally and architecturally -- with commercial software providers. In fact, Stein said the next big project for Open eGov is to integrate the platform with Microsoft technologies, such as SharePoint and Active Directory. "Andy is astute on sharing and leveraging platforms that people want in creative ways," McKee said, noting that almost half of the 130,000 open source projects at SourceForge.net are built on Microsoft's platform.

The intersection of Microsoft, open source and public-sector IT hasn't always been this civil. Remember the high-stakes, career-defining dispute between Microsoft and Massachusetts just a few short years ago? It's too easy to attribute the changes to a shift from a set of quasi-ideological drivers in the open source movement (Massachusetts) to more pragmatic concerns (Newport News).

The blurring of the lines between commercial and open source software has accelerated in the interim. Consider that respected industry watcher Mark Anderson of the Strategic News Service said that at a post-Bill Gates Microsoft, Chief Software Architect Ray Ozzie is charged with finding the company's role in cloud computing -- where shrink-wrap is no longer king. Consider too that Microsoft now has an open source strategist and he is reportedly proposing a WAMP (Windows, Apache, MySQL, PHP) stack that can be used independently or as a platform for other components, but runs on Windows.

Stein said Open eGov is moving toward a WAMP stack too, but the collaboration needs Microsoft's help to make the integration work through access to SharePoint and other application programming interfaces -- the same stuff the average Microsoft business partner or independent software vendor relies on.

While he is waiting, Stein said Newport News has begun hosting Open eGov as a service for Franklin County, Va., at $260 per month. Simultaneously the collaboration has extended its membership to Waynesboro and Staunton, Va., and started merger talks with Plone-using Albuquerque, N.M. That leaves him with precious little time to bask in the reflected glory of the J. Robert Havlick Award for Innovation in Local Government, which Newport News picked up from the Alliance for Innovation in spring 2008.

Paul W. Taylor  |  Contributing Writer