February 14, 2008

Government/corporate project declares plan to promote OSS within the EU

Author: Marco Fioretti

An ambitious initiative that aims to bring open source software to a new level in Europe hopes to make competition with US companies more interesting. QualiPSo is a four-year project partly funded by the EU. Its mission is to "bring together the major players of a new way to use and deploy open source software (OSS), fostering its quality and trust from corporations and governments."

QualiPSo members include corporations, universities, and public administrations (PA) of various kinds from 20 countries. The main industrial players are Mandriva, Atos Origin, Bull, and Engineering Ingegneria Informatica. While Qualipso founders include organizations from China and Brazil, the main project focus now is on Europe.

QualiPSo was officially launched a year ago. Last month, the group held its first international conference in Rome to present its mission and its initial results. On the first day of the two-day event, several speakers explained why their companies are promoting OSS on such a large scale. The second day was devoted to presenting the main Qualipso subprojects.

What does QualiPSo do?

E-government is the area where Qualipso members hope to make the most money, and where they think they can impact the most EU citizens. Many citizens couldn't care less whether their tax office runs closed or open source software, or if the provider of that software is an American or European corporation, but they do care if filing tax forms online is safe and cheap, and results in quick action. Thus current plans call for QualiPSo to work in 10 distinct areas toward , a word with many different meanings.

During a face-to-face talk, QualiPSo representatives explained to me what they exactly mean by interoperability. According to QualiPSo, large organizations spend about 40% of their IT budget on integration projects. OSS is not interoperable per se, but often the real obstacles are not in the code. Development and publication of proper design practices or open, fully compatible software interfaces are the first and simplest space in which QualiPSo will work to improve OSS interoperability.

On a different plane, metadata such as software categories, relevant technologies, or developer skills aren't stored or presented in a coherent way in SourceForge.net, BerliOS, or other repositories. Next generation software forges from QualiPSo would make it possible for an integrator to build complete OSS products combining (and maintaining) components stored in different repositories with the minimum possible effort.

The last type of interoperability addressed by QualiPSo -- and maybe the most important -- is the organizational and bureaucratic one. E-government and quick business decisions remain dreams if the three different departments that have to approve a budget change do it through three different procedures incompatible in terminology, security, and interfaces. Qualipso members will provide support to integrate all such procedures or guarantee that they really are interoperable.

Thorough interoperability testing at all these levels is costly, time-consuming, and boring enough to attract little volunteer work, if any. To make such testing easier, QualiPSo plans to create lightweight test suites to evaluate the actual interoperability of OSS components and their quality from this and other points of view. More details are in the
Interoperability page on QualiPSo's Web site.

Another interesting item in the QualiPSo agenda is the legal subproject. A single programmer merrily hacking in his basement for personal fun may simply patch and recompile GPL code or stick a GPL or similar label on any source code he releases online and be done with it. A large corporation or PA cannot afford legal troubles, especially if it operates in countries with different legislation than USA, the country where most current OSS licenses were designed. As SCO and others have demonstrated, even when it's certain that the bad guys are wrong, proving it wastes a lot of time and money that would have been spent better elsewhere (especially if it was public money). QualiPSo plans to provide a family of OSS licenses for both software and documentation guaranteed to be valid under European laws, together with methodologies to evaluate and properly manage any intellectual property issues.

Four QualiPSo Competence Centers are scheduled to open in Berlin, Madrid, Paris, and Rome during the fall of 2008. Their purpose will be to make all the QualiPSo resources, services, methods, and tools mentioned here and on the Web site available to potential OSS adopters, whether they be individuals, businesses, or PAs.

Critics from the trenches

Roberto Galoppini and other bloggers have noted that the Qualipso reports cost a lot of money and contain little new information, and asked questions such as: Is the amount of public money going into QualiPSo excessive? Will that public money benefit only the corporations that are members of the project? Will the Competence Centers and other initiatives be abandoned as soon as public funding isn't enough to sustain them? During conference breaks I heard or overheard comments along these lines by several attendees.

Jean-Pierre Laisné, leader of the Competence Center subproject, acknowledged that much of the information in the Qualipso reports isn't new. However, he says, it still is information that needed to be organized and declared officially, in a way that constitutes a formal commitment to support OSS from local businesses to states and other large organizations in Europe that, for any reason, cannot or will not listen to hackers in the street. This is more or less the same thing that blogger Dana Blankenhorn said about the cost and apparent obviousness of QualiPSo.

Right now, QualiPSo is a way for Europe-based corporations to get the biggest possible slice of OSS-related contracts from large private or public European organizations. The fact that the group already includes Brazilian and Chinese members -- that is, that software houses in those countries may join the group to apply the same strategy in their home markets -- makes Qualipso all the more interesting, especially for US observers. Qualipso may become a home for software vendors outside the USA that want to kick IBM, Microsoft, Sun, and Oracle out of their local markets -- something no non-US company can do today alone.

If European PAs are to cost less, be more transparent and efficient, and generally move away from manual, paper-based procedures that are expensive and slow, there must be clear rules, tools, and practices to build and recognize quality OSS -- that is, software that is solid, reliable, actually interoperable in the real world, and completely compatible at all levels with local laws. However, hammering out all the deadly boring details of how to implement interoperable bureaucratic procedures in software is something that no volunteer is ever going to do. This is an area where a bit of assistance from the private sector in the form of an organization like QualiPSo wouldn't hurt, at least in some EU countries.

So far, it's not clear how open QualiPSo's operations will be, or how much its activities will benefit all of the European OSS community, not just QualiPSo members. Besides these concerns, in this first year there has also been grumbling about the lack of a published work plan and, in general, of enough information and interaction between QualiPSo and the community. There is still time to fix this now that the project has officially gone public.

However, QualiPSo may make it harder for European PAs at all levels, from parliaments to the smallest city or school council, to ignore OSS, no matter who proposes it. QualiPSo may officially bring OSS, even in Europe, to a level where you cannot be fired for not choosing Microsoft or any other proprietary software. The goal of the "Exploitation and dissemination" subproject is to "promote OSS at a political level, as well as laws and regulations supporting OSS." Mentioning QualiPSo reports with their EU blessings could also be an excellent argument for all the European public employees who promote OSS, such as the ROSPA group in Italy, to convince their managers that it is safe, after all, to create local IT jobs by buying OSS products and services by (any) local businesses.

Even the fact that companies and PAs have already spent public money may make it easier for citizens to demand control and involvement from their representatives, both inside QualiPSo and in any other situation where OSS gets many public praises but much less public funds. If OSS is so good that even the EU partners with big corporations to spread it, why isn't it used more?

All in all, there are plenty of good reasons to follow QualiPSo with interest and see where it will go in the upcoming months.


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