April 2, 2003

How open source developers can get more U.S. government contracts

- By Alexander Perry -

Why is government procurement a challenge for Open Source?
Ironically, it is because the US government's acquisition policy has
been shaped over many decades to try to get the best value for money.
For-profit corporations with proprietary solutions are expected to try
to make as much money as they can from a limited amount of development.
Thoughtful tinkering and optimization, over many decades, has built
stacks of policies, guidance documents and standardized clauses that use
competition between such companies to try to get the best value solution.
Government employees, who must obey the Federal Acquisition Regulation
(FAR), generally understand the benefits that Open Source offers but
have trouble with the Open Source concept of "contributing to the community"
due to those regs.

One obvious approach is to start putting requests through Congress for
legislative changes that will generate amendments to the FAR so they
can better accommodate Open Source. This may take a long time.
The other approach is less aesthetically pleasing, but more practical.
All open source developers, contractors, distributors, administrators (etc)
should give the appearance of only caring about their sales revenue and
aim to sell Open Source Software products, each containing only a few
binary packages, for as much money as the purchasing budgets can afford.
The FAR was designed for that behavior pattern, and helps government buyers
efficiently talk to vendors who exhibit it.

Debian GNU/Linux Government Edition (DGL-GE) would fit on a single CDROM and
include all the source code for its binary packages. The retail price --
around $100 -- would include up to 2 hours of telephone or e-mail support
(and/or software maintenance) for the registered user. The support could
be used any time in the twelve months following the purchase date.
DGL-GE would include the installer, the base packages and very little else.
To manage the productivity of government employees, this should include
X, icewm, solitaire, a media player, a web browser and network printing.
Like other vendors' competing products, it should omit development tools and word processors.

Next to every commercial software product that is in the GSA schedule,
there should be listings for each Open Source near-equivalent.
It would be difficult for the GSA to reject our individual requests
since these new listings would foster competition with a lower price,
reasonable support options and (of course) different feature sets.

For example, Open Office (Debian Government Edition) could be a single CDROM
with all the Debian packages needed to use just the office package itself.
That new OO-DGL-GE product, priced around $200, would include one year of
support, 4 hours maximum, with respect to a single specified user account.

Software in the Public Interest (Debian's legal entity) might offer
a special bundle product SITE-DGL-GE (site license for Debian Government Edition) at perhaps $9990 for site administrators.
It would include all Debian software in binary with unlimited access
to Debian's bug tracking system and package archive as well as mandatory
attendance at a one week training class. This class would teach its students
how to use all elements of the Debian distribution, including the skills needed
to be a package maintainer, so that a government
administrator who took it would become eligible for developer rights on the distribution.
SITE-DGL-GE would ship on seven CDs with a written statement that the
source can be provided, if a written request is made within three years,
by purchasing the new SHAREDSOURCE-DGL-GE product.

The SHAREDSOURCE-DGL-GE product would ship on about seven CDs and contain
all the source packages for the distribution. Its price -- around $14,900 -- would
only pay for the materials and the premium shipment (as required by the GPL).
The product would be offered under the Debian Shared Source license agreement,
indicating that the recipient may not make changes to the source files
on the CDROM and can only inspect and critique the files on the CDROM.
The shipping media would not be CD-RW, so it would be necessary to copy
files from the CDROM to a hard drive before making any desired changes.

For the premium shipment, the seller would travel in person to the
customer's site and spend a maximum of one week reviewing the source code
(as directed by their QA specialists) with the customer's engineering team.
This review is necessary to ensure that the engineers fully understand
the limited rights they receive in conjunction with these CDROMs
and know how to avoid violating the licenses on the source code files.

Lest you think I'm joking ... I'm not. If this approach is taken,
the government would be able to purchase the software they need using the usual
channels, and have developers with relevant expertise competing
for who would accept the cheapest possible busman's holiday to the
Washington DC area.

The rules in the FAR
will look at this as healthy commercial retail competition.

The people doing the purchasing, unlike the rules, will see that their purchase is gaining
one week of dedicated training for their software engineering team, training
that is delivered by their chosen national expert on a specific software package.

No one would have to fix all the problems that might occur under one of these
contracts on their own, since the money and work could be subcontracted.

The GSA schedule of approved purchasing sources is already long.
There is plenty of room to add every open source developer who can
comply with the generic rules and constraints for the GSA schedule list.
Each sells a product with a slightly different combination of packages
on a CDROM that represents whatever software he/she is willing to
personally support. Imagine 200 people all selling OpenOffice,
50 people selling AbiWord, 100 people selling LaTeX bundles, plus others selling all
the other open source word processing packages. Each of these individuals would be
an equal competitor with companies that have proprietary, closed source near-equivalents.

I'm only using Debian as an example, not suggesting that we all start using Debian. Diversity is good.

Every distribution with a U.S. legal presence could offer equivalent
products.

And, yes, so could individual developers.

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