Open-Source Government Free-software guru Bruce Perens has a new information-technology solution
Hal Plotkin, Special to SF Gate
Thursday, August 29, 2002
One thing most technology experts can agree on is that California’s state government has squandered billions on ill-conceived information-technology (IT) projects in recent years. Whether it was the more than $100 million in taxpayer funds that state authorities admit were wasted on the state’s automated child-support system or the more recent purchase of thousands of unneeded software licenses from Oracle, the sorry record is painfully clear. California desperately needs a more workable IT plan.
Fortunately, in the spirit of the open-source software movement, free-software evangelist Bruce Perens has just offered one up. Perens has been writing and distributing free software programs since 1987. He’s also the author of “The Open Source Definition,” which originally helped popularize the term “open source.” More recently, among other activities, he’s been leading an effort to create standards governments can use when making IT purchases. His hope is that the recent scandals will lead to a long-overdue reappraisal of current policies and consideration of some commonsense alternatives.
The fight over what those standards should look like is already turning into a real donnybrook. On one side, there’s a group calling itself the Initiative for Software Choice, which counts Microsoft among its key members. As you might have guessed, this group argues that governments should not be required to buy any particular type of software. Suggestions that public agencies should be prohibited from purchasing closed-source software that requires annual maintenance fees, per-seat licenses or royalty payments get them especially lathered up.
On the other side are the backers of what’s being called the Digital Software Security Act, which was unveiled at the recent San Francisco Linux World convention. This legislation, which is yet to find an official sponsor in the state legislature, would require that California’s state government buy only software whose source code is open and available. Under this arrangement, the state would own any software it purchased, and could choose between competing companies when it came time to award maintenance or service-upgrade contracts, rather than be locked in to the software’s original supplier.
Those calling for the open-source-only approach say it would save taxpayers bundles of money. They also claim it would yield more secure and reliable software, thanks to the ongoing efforts of the large and growing community of open-source programmers whose combined talents exceed what any one proprietary vendor could possibly offer. The other side counters that relying only on open-source software will make it impossible for the government to use the most popular commercial software programs and that doing so would discriminate against companies that make those products.
Bruce Perens disagrees with both sides in this debate. By striking a middle ground between the two, he’s come up with a far more elegant solution. Unlike the most radical elements in the open-source movement, Perens maintains that a complete ban on state purchases of proprietary closed-source software isn’t necessary. What is required instead, he says, is a simple set of principles that delineate the exact parts of the state’s IT infrastructure that must remain open. Once those critical areas are protected, state and local government agencies would be free to buy whatever software best serves their needs.
Perens says one of the key areas that must be protected revolves around software interoperability. Simply put, that means all software purchased by government agencies must use file formats and file-transfer methods that others can also use, free of charge. It’s similar to the way e-mail works: Dozens of companies make competing programs for creating, sending and storing e-mail, but all of them rely on a common set of public protocols to transmit those messages.
Likewise, Perens says that any software purchased by the state should be based on similar open standards. That means no companies would be able to lock the state in as a customer by building technical roadblocks that keep competitors out. Companies providing software to the state could either use open standards that already exist for those parts of their wares or release the source code they use for those functions into the public domain.
Presumably, software companies would still be able to keep other sections of their source code secret — for example, the code behind a particularly nifty user interface — as long as doing so does not prevent competitors and other interested parties from getting at the underlying data in question. Likewise, the state would still be able to purchase proprietary software from companies such as Microsoft, as long as those products adhere to the rules about file formats and standards-based interoperability with other programs.
The biggest proprietary-software companies are certain to object to Perens idea. But the truth is, because of the massive size of those government accounts, the big software firms really can’t afford to walk away from them entirely. Instead, companies that want part of that business would have to either follow the new rules or watch as the government market is captured by competitors that charge less because they use open standards.
He says his biggest objection to the Initiative for Software Choice approach revolves around what he says are the deceptive arguments the group has been using.
The drama surrounding this dispute is being played out on the international stage. Earlier this year, Peruvian politician Edgar Villanueva introduced legislation that would have required that Peru buy only open-source software. Villanueva argued that doing so was the fastest and cheapest way to put more computers and software into the hands of students in his country’s notoriously hard-pressed schools. Similar bills have also been introduced in Mexico and Brazil.
The Bush administration has been helping Microsoft fend off the movement toward open-source software in Latin America. For example, John Hamilton, the U.S. ambassador to Peru, personally expressed his opposition to the open-source-only proposal in a recent letter he wrote to the Peruvian Congress.
The main argument the ambassador made, and the one that seems to outrage critics such as Perens the most, is that governments should not be locked in to any one IT purchasing scheme.
Ironically, Perens says that’s exactly what the Microsoft-backed alliance’s proposed principles would achieve. That’s because, while the group says it supports what it calls “software standards,” it also maintains that those standards need not be open or available for anyone to use free of charge. Instead, Microsoft’s allies say that the term should refer to royalty-generating products as long as they are offered to all customers at the same fair and reasonable price (determined by the provider).
Perens, however, points out what would really happen under such an arrangement: Once a software company encoded government data in a proprietary format, any other suppliers interested in using or accessing that data, including open-source vendors, would have to use the same proprietary technologies, which they would also have to pay for. That would eliminate much of the efficiency created by the open-source approach, which offers lower prices to customers precisely because software royalties are not part of the equation.
“Essentially, the Initiative for Software Choice principles would push open-source vendors out of government markets,” says Perens. “Open-source vendors can’t afford to pay royalties.”
California has much to gain by taking on a leadership role in the software-choice debate. Caving in to Microsoft’s position, by contrast, would set the stage for another round of disappointments as proprietary-software vendors continue to take state purchasing agents to the cleaners.
Adopting Perens’ simple suggestions, on the other hand, would place California at the epicenter of a new surge of service-oriented IT entrepreneurial growth. There’s no telling what new ideas and applications may come along — and how much money taxpayers might save — once the state’s myriad computer systems all use open-file formats and intercommunication standards. Once it’s successfully implemented here, that approach would quickly sweep the nation and the world, bringing the benefits of computing to populations, including impoverished schoolchildren in Latin America and elsewhere, at a fraction of today’s costs.
The alternative is to maintain the status quo, which is similar to letting construction firms place toll bridges on any parts of the state’s freeways that they might repave.
Before an IT renaissance can happen, though, some state legislator will have to incorporate Perens’ principles into a bill that crafts the more sensible IT purchasing policy that California needs.
The good thing is, California’s lawmakers won’t have to pay a dime to anyone to formulate the policy, since Perens has already done that job.
The question is, will our legislators do theirs?
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