July 25, 2003

Why governments should be allowed to specify Open Source software

- By Robin 'Roblimo' Miller -

The idea of governments giving preference to Open Source over proprietary software angers short-sighted 'free market' advocates. But businesses that want to deal with governments have always been expected to meet special conditions, and requiring software vendors to make all code they sell to governments Open Source is no worse than many other government purchasing conditions. Let's start by talking about glue.

Many years ago I read the specifications for glue used to hold paper labels on boxes containing laces for Army boots. The document was four pages long, and said -- in great detail -- what conditions the glue was expected to survive. It had to withstand much higher and lower temperatures than 'civilian' glue without losing its gripping power, for instance. And it had to last many years before the labels peeled from the boxes. Elmer's and other common consumer glue brands did not meet these specifications -- or even come close.

I don't recall glue industry lobbyists screaming about discrimination in the contract process. Instead, glue manufacturers who wanted to produce glue that met the specs entered bids, and those who felt it wasn't worth their time didn't. Very simple. Very free market.

Mil-spec electronics

Your Panatoshpunkt D-40 megaquad stereo receiver is not built to military specifications. No one has tested how well it would perform in Artic cold while being bounced through a storm in a helicopter, and it might not hold up too well in Iraq's 120 degree summer days.

If you want to sell electronic equipment to the U.S. military, you need to use special 'mil spec' chips, wires, casings and circuit boards. You need better connectors than are required for most civilian applications. And you may need to supply all your gear in olive-drab instead of the bright colors you'd choose for display in a consumer electronics store.

Intel, AMD, and almost all other major chipmakers produce special mil-spec products. Indeed, an entire industry has grown up around mil-spec electronics. And no one in it complains when specs change; they simply re-engineer their products to comply with the new requirements.

Even limo companies have governments specs to meet

I owned a limousine company in the Baltimore/Washington area for a number of years. I knew the formula the GSA (General Services Administration) used to determine how much federal employees were allowed to spend for transportation from their homes to airports and back again, and I made sure my prices were always under the maximum allowance.

Some of my competitors complained about government transport reimbursement rates being too low. I simply made sure my little business operated efficiently enough that I could make a profit within the GSA-mandated rate structure, and I stayed busy (and earned a nice living) while many other small limo operators went broke trying to get more money from each trip than I did -- and ran half as many trips as I did.

Doctors who accept Medicare patients are also constrained by government price lists, and must accept the fact that they are going to fill out plenty of forms to collect Medicare payments. It's the same for pharmacies and others in the health care industry, all of whom are free to opt out of Medicare and other government medical reimbursement programs if they don't like the terms they must meet to participate in them.

Why should proprietary software companies get special treatment?

If the federal government suddenly decided to acquire and use nothing but Open Source software, this would not stop Microsoft, Adobe, and other big proprietary software vendors from bidding on government contracts. It would simply mean they'd need to open some of their source code if they wanted to do business with the government.

They could come up with special, Open Source 'government editions' of their most lucrative products that didn't have exactly the same feature sets as civilian versions, and keep the 'civilian' features as proprietary as they liked, just as chip makers typically produce both civilian and mil-spec microprocessors.

Companies in almost every other industry -- from janitorial services to aircraft manufacturers -- that sell to the government routinely accept the fact that they must accept a different set of rules and specifications than the ones that govern their relationships with private sector customers.

It's time for the software industry to grow up; to realize that it is no different from other industries. And, like other industries, it must realize that if it wants to have the government as a customer it must abide by the government's purchasing rules -- even if one of those rules requires that all software sold to the government carries an OSI-approved license.

Click Here!