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Debate: Should governments use open source software?

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Should governments choose open source software in order to encourage its use?

Background and context

Microsoft has held a monopoly on software such as operating systems and office applications for most desktop computers for the last two decades. There have been a variety of rivals from Lotus to Netscape who have tried and failed to unseat the company’s dominance. Since 1998 a new generation of programmers has emerged with a completely different approach to software development; a collaborative and open one. Microsoft carefully guards the intellectual property to its products by limiting access to the software source code (the guts which make its programmes work), claiming that this is necessary for the security of its customers and to protect the investment it has made in developing their products. In contrast, the code to open source software (such as Mozilla’s Firefox web browser, the Open Office suite of word processing and spreadsheet tools, or the operating system Linux) is, under the General Public License, open to users to read, change, adjust, and even to redistribute. Proponents argue that this makes it more flexible and morally purer, as well as significantly cheaper than the Microsoft or other closed source alternatives. Opponents of open source argue that such software is often lower quality; less tailored to the client and may have problems with compatibility. While early adopters and some consumers have begun to use open source software, with the exception of server operating systems (like Linux and Apache), businesses and governments have been slow to adopt open source software. Governments spend over $20bn a year on software around the world and if they were to select open source rather than closed source software they could significantly change the balance of the industry. This has begun to happen, most notably the choice of Linux rather than Windows on the city of Munich’s 14,000 computers in 2003, and more ambitious long term projects to switch to open source software in Brazil, Russia, China, South Korea, India and the UK. Most of these projects are still at an early stage, but with Microsoft releasing its new operating system, Windows Vista in 2007, over the next few years governments will have to decide whether to invest in this upgrade or choose an open source alternative.

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Superior software? Does open-sourcing produce superior software than closed-source alternatives?

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Yes

  • The openness of open-source software produces faster, more responsive, and more robust improvements in software: Open-source software starts from a completely different viewpoint of how products should be created. Rather than the building of a cathedral where everyone has their own clearly defined role and are instructed by a central pre-determined figure how to proceed, open-source software development is like a bazaar where everyone is engaged in the same activity but come at it from all sorts of directions (for instance, not all are selling, some are shoppers criticizing or examining the wares) and create a cacophony out of which a more fluid product emerges.[1] The basic advantage of open source software is that when users can read, redistribute, and modify the source code for a piece of software, it evolves. This means that users and programmers can improve, adapt and fix the software at a much faster pace than Microsoft or another closed source developer can match. This means better software which, critically, is adapted by the user to their particular needs. Monopolistic producers like Microsoft have an incentive to slow the pace of change, whereas the open source community will simply chose the best solution. Government should choose this software because it is more robust and more responsive to their changing needs than closed source alternatives.
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No

  • Open-source products lack innovativeness and are inferior to centrally produced products: Open-sourcing has produced software that is not bug-proof but actually requires far more updates than the closed source alternatives. In fact the most successful open source software after the operating system Linux is Apache, an open-source web-server which holds around 70% of the global market, and MySQL, an open-source database, both of which are far from innovative but really just stripped down versions of closed source programs.
  • Real innovation is driven by the profit motive and comes from the knowledge that a firm can capitalize on a discovery: Examples include Google's search algorithm. For this reason the open source software movement is doomed to producing mediocrity. Governments choose IT systems for five to ten years and so should look to a reliable closed source solution which provides quality rather than buying into a nebulous idea of ‘moral software’.
  • The open-source "bazaar" approach is actually tending back toward the traditional "cathedral" approach, because it is superior: While open source software may have originally been developed by a group of student programmers volunteering to improve a particular piece of software, it has become increasingly commercial. It is now chiefly written by employees sponsored for their efforts by companies that think they will in some way benefit from the project. This has led to the gradual adoption of the ‘cathedral’ approach rather than the ‘bazaar’ model of organization.
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Pricing and costs: Is open-source technology cheaper, and could utilizing it save governments substantial amoungts of money?

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Yes

  • While open source software is not always free, it tends to be significantly cheaper than closed source alternatives and can save governments money. For instance the Brazilian government’s decision to adopt open source software for its housing department in 2005 has saved it $120m a year.[2] Given that around the world governments spend over $20bn a year on software[3], the potential for total cost savings is enormous. The money saved can be used to fund more important government expenditure like healthcare or education.
  • Open-source software can pressure the reduction in the prices of closed-source software: Simply by discussing adopting open-source software, Microsoft has been forced to reduce its prices; it cut its prices by $35m to match Linux’s offering to the city of Munich, and was forced to offer to release a cheaper, stripped down version of its new operating system, Windows Vista, when Brazil began discussing its future software plans.[4]
  • Ultimately this not only helps governments but also helps Microsoft as many developing nations currently rely on pirated copies of Microsoft software which undermines attempts to stop copyright fraud.
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No

  • Open source software is often confused with free software but in fact it is usually provided at some cost to the user:
  • Open-source software usually lacks customer support and trouble shooting like closed-source software, meaning governments have to pay extra for that support: If a Microsoft product fails a government IT department knows that it can rely on Microsoft for a patch or technical support, whereas with the open source software they are left waiting on a community to get round to tackling the problem. This has meant that governments which choose open source software have had to pay for expensive support packages, which makes the total cost of the IT solution similar to that of the closed source software. This has been to the advantage of major consultancy firms which are often chosen to put together IT solutions and who can make more money from pushing expensive support contracts than on upfront costs for software. The risk is that in the rush to find the software with the cheapest sticker price, governments will end up paying more overall for software without the range of support and features of the closed source alternatives.
  • Transitioning to open-source technology is prohibitively expensive: Because 90% of desktop PCs use Microsoft products, the cost for companies and citizens to transition from Microsoft to an open-source alternative would be prohibitively high in the short term.
  • Managing and updating open-source technology is too difficult and costly for it to be adopted throughout society on a large scale: While open-source software may be suitable for servers (where it has already made the most impact) which are managed by IT professionals, but for the average citizen or government worker, the concept of open-source software which works on the basis of a constant flow of updates and minor changes would mean a need for continual training and re-training to keep up to date with the software. Open source software is being jumped on by some governments as a tool to attack Microsoft’s monopoly, but actually will only end up costing them time and money.
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Democratic principles: Would the utilization of open-source technologies improve democracy and the advance of democratic principles?

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Yes

  • Open-source software, because it is typically cheaper, can be spread more widely, such that citizens and governments operate on the same systems and more commonly, to the benefit of democracy: Economists use the term ‘network effect’ to describe how if several users use the same program, it becomes more valuable for others to do so as well because they can then share and collaborate work using that software.[5] This is one of the reasons why Microsoft’s monopoly of around 90% of the desktop market with its Windows and Office software has been so hard to challenge. Governments are one of the few organisations which can define the standards to be used in their states because citizens and businesses increasingly have to interact with government electronically. This occurred over network standards which the US Department of Defence defined in the 1970s.[6] Today it forms the basis for Brazil’s Digital Inclusion Program which has selected open source software for 58 government units rather than Windows or Office. The result is that ordinary Brazilian citizens can use the same open source software at home knowing they will be able to interact with their government. Because open source software is often either free or cheaper than closed source alternatives, this saves the whole population money and enables wider uptake of computing, and interaction between citizenries and their governments.
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No

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Shifting to open-source? Are software and other industries shifting to open-source technologies and approaches, possibly signifying that governments should join these trends and go open-source as well?

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Yes

  • There are many examples of mainstream companies going open-source for its advantages:
    • Under threat from Linux, Microsoft has launched the Open Source Initiative through which it shares elements of some of its programs’ source code with key partners to enable the development of software for platforms like Windows Mobile.[7]
    • In 2002 Real Networks opened up the source code for its world renowned RealPlayer.[8]
    • In 2005 IBM offered 500 key patents (out of 40,000)[9]
    • Sun made its Solaris server operating system open source.[10]
    • The concept of sharing source code has spread beyond the software development business, for instance recently the investment banks Dresdner Kleinwort Wasserstein and Barclays Global Investors released the source code for key programs that they use internally.[11]
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No

  • Certain firms have adopted open-source technologies out of desperation in the face of competition, possibly indicating that this shift will not be long-term, and should not be followed: The first firm to shift to the open source approach was Netscape with its Navigator web browser because it was being outperformed by the closed source Microsoft Internet Explorer; Netscape made the shift out of desperation. That is exactly the same reason why Sun and Real have made their programs open source - Solaris was being squeezed by Windows and Linux, and RealPlayer by iTunes and Windows Media Player. Similarly the patents IBM is sharing and the narrow range of source code that Microsoft is opening up are in sectors where neither firm is dominant and where they hope they can leverage the volunteer programming community to improve their products. This is a shrewd business maneuver and not evidence of a sea-change in industry practice. Since Microsoft launched the Open Source Initiative it has not expanded it in response to other governments threatening to shift to open source software, so we should not view this as the beginning of a trend.
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Public interest: Is there a public interest software being more open and publicly "owned"?

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Yes

  • Open-source software is often effectively publicly owned and can be used for key public interest activities, vs. private ownership, which prevents this from happening: This is a matter of national security and sovereignty as well as of cost and effectiveness. Governments around the world are increasingly shifting their operations to computers and onto the internet, which has created a vast number of digital tax returns, criminal records, DNA databases and so on. At present access to and use of this information is dependent on private companies which design software to benefit their shareholders. Open source software hands control of the software needed to access that data to the government and nation itself and gives it the ability to shape the data and software based on its own interests. Given that Microsoft products have been the target of many well known security failings and viruses, by moving away from their products, governments can decrease the likelihood that crucial data will be compromised by a hacker or virus attack.
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No

  • Even if closed source software firms are ultimately answerable to their shareholders, their shareholders want them to produce software which meets the needs of their customers so that they can sell their products: That is why Microsoft has offered a cheap version of Windows Vista to developing nations and has been willing to cut the price of its software in negotiations with governments around the world. The more worrying national security issue is that by definition the code for open source software is freely available. Until now, hackers have often attacked Microsoft because it is seen as a malign force in the world, however many of those hackers view national governments in a similar light (certainly that is suggested by continual attempts to hack into government computer systems) and might well start to take advantage of the open source code to attack national computer systems. Even the company which defined itself in opposition to Microsoft, Google is now coming under attack for being too commercial. If the same happened to, say, Linux, it would then provide a dangerous opportunity for terrorists to target critical IT systems, totally undermining national security.
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Specialization: Does open-source software have the advantage of being able to be specialized to specific niche needs, and how important would this be?

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Yes

  • Open-source software can be adapted to specialized uses much more easily than closed-source software: Yet, big firms like Microsoft often lack specialist depth which means governments are better off turning to the open source market where innovation and flexibility are built in. One area where this is particularly relevant to governments is language; Microsoft only supports 33 languages in Windows XP and around 20 in Office XP as they do not have the economic incentive to provide versions for other languages and dialects. Yet governments often need to provide access to information in dozens of languages and dialects (particularly in countries like Spain with regional languages like Catalan and Basque, or India with its 18 official languages and 1000 dialects). Open source software can easily be adapted to those languages. For instance OpenOffice has been adapted into 75 languages including Slovenian, Icelandic, Lao, Latvian, Welsh, Yiddish, Basque and Galician, and Indian languages such as Gujarati, Devanagari, Kannada and Malayalam. By using the open-source model of sharing the workload between many users, the Hungarian Foundation for Free Software was able to translate OpenOffice in three days with the help of just over a hundred programmers. By providing software specialized for the local market government can encourage greater IT usage by citizens, thereby increasing the skill level of the workforce and multiplying the cost savings made by shifting government services online.
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No

  • Closed source software companies are more than capable of segmenting their products to reach each part of the market: For instance, Microsoft is producing its new Windows Vista operating system in a record six different versions. Its monopoly of desktop computers ensures that if a programmer produces a niche software package or software translation for a specialized purpose, that programmer knows that potential clients will almost certainly be able to run the program if it is designed for Windows. If this monopoly is broken up and governments start to push Linux or other open source alternatives the programmer will either have to develop for two or more platforms, thereby increasing the cost of the final product, or have to gamble on a single platform; both options would reduce the likelihood of the niche solution reaching the clients that need it. Furthermore, while open source software does allow anyone to spot a potential market and customize software to sell to that market, that access is also its great undoing. This leaves projects open to abuse, either by well-meaning amateurs or intentional wreckers. Constant self-policing is required to ensure its quality. This has been seen most notably with Wikipedia where the freedom of the mob led to defamatory statements being written about the former editor of USA Today. Governments should be wary of relying on a rudderless ship to serve their IT needs.
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Legal issues: Is open-source technology less vulnerable to legal hold-ups and liabilities?

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Yes

  • Opens-source technology avoids patent hold-ups and legal liabilities: Given governments’ ability to set the market standard through the network effect and the significance of its own purchasing power, choosing open source software is also a method of slowing the ‘patent-war’ which has erupted since the 1990s. The US Patent and Trademark Office (USPTO) approves more than 170,000 patents each year, a figure which is rising by 6% a year. Yet in a study M-CAM found that more than 30% of patents make duplicate claims, raising questions about their validity and hinting at a ticking litigation time bomb. The General Public License (GPL) for open source software provides an alternative which removes the patenting right from users or developers and instead encourages the sharing of ideas for collaborative benefit. The recent case of NTP, which successfully sued BlackBerry for infringing one of its patents for over $600m and which threatened to shut down the mobile communication device completely, shows how much disruption and damage could be caused if the software we rely on gets caught up in legal disputes.
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No

  • Patents encourage investment: The number of patents being issued is actually a positive thing for software development and business, partly because they encourage investment in research and development as companies know they will have a legal fallback to protect the commercialization of their discoveries.
  • Tech firms are frequently arriving at a legal balance and mutual understanding not to sue each other: More specifically the software industry works on a mutually assured destruction basis; for instance Google, Yahoo! and MSN are all reportedly infringing each other’s patents and therefore reducing the incentive for any one company to sue another.
  • Open-source legal frameworks are actually fairly vulnerable to legal problems: The General Public License (GPL) for open source software may say that any improvements to the software must be made available to all under the terms of the original license but there is little proven legal recourse to enforce this and the industry relies on a sense of ‘community spirit’. Given that this ‘community spirit’ is quickly disappearing as the industry becomes increasingly commercialized, mass investment by governments would only serve to tip it into oblivion and leave users in a worrying legal limbo.

References

Motions

  • This house would choose open source software
  • This house believes that Microsoft’s days are numbered
  • That governments should only purchase open source software
  • This House believes code wants to be free
  • This House believes governments should support the open source movement

In the real world (affected legislation and policy...)

See also

External links and resources

Books

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