Agencies could play role in boosting software competition, advocates say

Consumer advocates say the Bush administration is studying whether to require that federal agencies purchase more non-proprietary software in an effort to facilitate federal workers' ability to trade electronic documents and to boost competition in the software industry.

Ralph Nader, founder of the advocacy group Public Citizen, met last week with White House Office of Management and Budget (OMB) Director Mitch Daniels and other officials to discuss the government's use of its procurement powers in promoting software competition. James Love, who directs the Nader-founded Consumer Project on Technology, also attended the meeting and said the two sides have discussed the issue during the past year.

Public Citizen has argued that a need for computer users to quickly swap electronic documents has given Microsoft a default monopoly in the market for word processing, spreadsheet and presentation-graphic software via its popular Word and PowerPoint products. Nader is concerned that "public information" stored electronically in proprietary software formats like Microsoft's will force consumers to purchase Microsoft or Microsoft-related products.

"The government actually has a responsibility that this information is available to the public freely," said Tony Stanco, associate director of George Washington University's Cyber Security Policy and Research Institute. "Putting things in proprietary format is not really justifiable."

And Love said there is an additional problem: "The big reason that people spend the big bucks for Microsoft is not because of its superior products; it's because they want to easily exchange documents." Consequently, "prices for Microsoft are going up."

According to Love, OMB officials say they have found that federal agencies are paying high fees for many proprietary solutions. "There was a lot of piecemeal procurement, and the prices that agencies were paying were higher than what corporate customers are paying," he explained.

The "U.S. government should insist" that its word-processing and presentation-graphic software vendors rely on non-proprietary standards for document files, Love said. That open standard for file formats would boost competition in the overall software market, he added.

Love said he and Nader suggested that the federal government purchase Corel Corp., a competitor to Microsoft, and place Corel's technology "into the open domain."

But OMB e-government administrator Mark Forman said he is unsure if the government would ever "lock in" one software solution across all agencies. "Our policy is fairly clear: to focus on the best value of what we are buying ... from a life-cycle perspective," he said.

Although OMB's e-government office is looking to standardize the way data are submitted to the government electronically, Forman said that effort is not the same as requiring computer documents to operate on an open standard.

"There is a presumption there that propriety software is not interoperable," said Robert Kramer, executive director of the Initiative for Software Choice, of which Microsoft is a member. "A lot of proprietary applications and programs operate on variety of operating systems."

He said any government policy to require software standards will only "force the market in one direction or another."