April 15, 2003

Affirmative action for open source

- Lee Schlesinger -
Should a public agency use privately developed software when equally suitable open source alternatives exist? Maybe a better question is, should politicians set software evaluation guidelines for IT managers, or should software compete on its own merits? That's the question at issue in two US state legislatures this year, as well as in various nations around the world.

Last month Oregon, with House Bill 2892, and Texas with Senate Bill 1579, proposed requiring state agencies to consider open source products when purchasing computer software and to "provide justification whenever a proprietary software product is acquired rather than open source software."

Neither of these proposals attempts to regulate private companies. They apply only to government agencies, which of course are funded by citizens' tax dollars.

There's nothing wrong with asking states to consider open source software as well as proprietary. Every organization ought to consider all the products that might meet their needs. I'm a little wary of provisions that force written justification when purchasing one particular category of software over another. That seems like unnecessary bureaucratic red tape if we presume that our public employees are trying to do the best possible job.

In California, advocates are trying to go a step further. Attorney Walt Pennington last summer proposed a Digital Software Security Act that would force state agencies to buy software only from companies that do not place restrictions on use or access to source code. To me, that's a step too far. Forcing any organization to buy only open source products seems overly restrictive at best and foolish at worst; what if there is no comparable open source program?

The Texas bill offers some good guidelines for any organization trying to evaluate which software provides the best value. Its criteria include purchase price, compatibility with existing data and systems, scalability, reliability, training costs, support costs, and compliance with organizational standards and policies. The product that does best in most of these categories is the one that deserves to be implemented.

Consider this quote:

We don't believe that governments should pick winners and losers. Technology should compete on its merits in a free market. Let the government look at all the options and then make a decision.

That sounds right to me. Do you agree? But when I tell you the statement is from Microsoft's Ricardo Adame, quoted in News.com, it sounds more than a little self-serving.

Microsoft, as one of the largest makers of proprietary software, has a vested interest in countering open source software. Developing nations, where money can be tight, naturally find open source software attractive. In countries such as Peru, India, and Mexico, Microsoft has made substantial donations of cash and software to counter the natural inclination toward free and open source software. It's hard for these governments to turn down hundreds of thousands of dollars in free money, but sometimes you have to make sacrifices in the short term to gain in the long term. Specifically, any package that IT managers can prove does a better job at a lower total cost over its lifetime should get purchasing approval.

Microsoft is attempting to ensure its future by donating software to schools. It knows that when students become comfortable with software, they'll tend to prefer it when they enter the workplace. The company tried taking the same tack in the US. In 2001 it offered to provide a billion dollars' worth of software, hardware, training, and support to 16,000 poor US schools as part of a proposed settlement of the government's antitrust case. The government rejected the proposal, realizing that the company's largesse would only help increase its market dominance.

Government mandates on social issues are always tricky. Take affirmative action, for instance. Do you approve of hiring policies to remedy historical racial inequalities, or should each potential employee be evaluated on his or her own merits? Consider your feelings about open source legislation in light of your feelings about affirmative action. You don't have to be consistent, but if you're not, you should understand why you feel as you do.

Do legislative attempts to level the playing field for open source really serve the open source community? Maybe, in that they may lead to more governmental adoption of open source software. But it's a little inconsistent to find open source proponents trying to pursue their ends by advocating governmental coercion.

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