'Open source' software trend faces barriers

Federal, state and local governments around the world are catching "open source" fever, purchasing software that lets them view and modify source code as opposed to proprietary software such as that made by Microsoft. But whether the global trend will continue may depend upon new and old factors that could hinder the increased spread of the open-source movement.

Barriers to growth include continued flaws in the ever-improving open-source technologies-which is being used more for computer servers than applications-and opposition by Microsoft, the world's dominant software player and thus the one with the most at stake if governments turn to open-source products. The leading open-source product is Linux, and the recent LinuxWorld in California conference focused heavily on product improvements.

In addition, large software makers have been busy obtaining patents on the ideas underlying open-source software, making a more difficult path ahead. And lawsuits are on the rise, even among those firms that espouse open-source thinking.

The issue has leapt onto the agenda of multilateral government bodies over the past year or so. The U.N. World Summit on the Information Society (WSIS) in December is probably the highest profile event because developing countries have taken a surprising degree of interest in the subject, largely on the perception that open-source software is cheaper and more easily available than proprietary products. At the WSIS, the United States has been working to trim language in the draft declaration that advocates and proposes open-source software for developing nations.

The topic also has been addressed at the Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development, which has been developing cyber-security guidelines that encourage the use of open-source technology. The World Intellectual Property Organization plans to hold a meeting on the subject next year. And at the recent Asia Pacific Economic Cooperation (APEC) meeting in Thailand, the United States pushed for governments to promote technology "choice," which is understood to include the choice of either open-source or proprietary software.

Even with the competitive hurdles facing open-source software, the U.S. technology industry recognizes the deep significance of its introduction into the global market and is hedging bets on the industry's evolution. Big U.S. players such as IBM, Intel and Oracle, are finding ways to accommodate open source in their products and services. U.S. industry trade associations are increasingly finding themselves straddling the traditional propriety and open-source worlds.

The U.S. government position on open source also appears to reflect industry schism and has fallen under the existing U.S. view in international arenas that laws should not specify which technology should be used.

"Our view on open source is that the U.S. and foreign governments need to be technology neutral in its [sic] procurement and R&D investments," said Bruce Mehlman, the Commerce Department's assistant secretary for tech policy. He added that the United States is neither for nor against open source but seeks to "give both open-source and proprietary software a fair look and go with whatever is better, faster and more cost effective."

The U.S. government opposes mandated preferences in other nations. "We are concerned by foreign governments setting preferences or mandates in procurement or research," Mehlman said.

Most people in the industry and in foreign governments seem to acquiesce. Governments in every region of the world are adopting open-source products, but the numerous attempts to impose rules favoring open source usually are defeated.

The European Union has demonstrated support for open source, and many countries in Europe, including Austria, Belgium, Bulgaria, Denmark, Finland, France, Germany, Greece, Italy, the Netherlands, Portugal, Spain, Sweden, Switzerland, Ukraine and the United Kingdom, have seen proposals at some level. But only the Spanish regional government of Andalucia so far has adopted a preference for open-source software. The decree, implemented in the spring, requires certain government agencies, such as state-run universities and libraries, to use "free" software.

The Korean government is considering an emphasis on open source in pooling research and development efforts with Japan and China, and China itself has warmed to open source. Many states in Brazil also have passed legislation permitting state agencies to procure open-source software, and the Brazilian state of Espirito Santo requires that open source be favored unless it makes systems incompatible.

U.S. industry is watching international developments closely and is not shy about directly communicating its concerns when preferential legislation or regulations emerge. Jonathan Zuck, president of the Association for Competitive Technology, which includes Microsoft, has questioned whether preference legislation might violate World Trade Organization laws. And the Initiative for Software Choice (ISC), a coalition operated by the Computer and Telecommunications Industry Association (CompTIA) that also includes Microsoft, keeps a running tally on open-source legislative developments.

"I think there are some people in government who believe the U.S. industry cannot be fairly competed against so they have to create unfair parameters to compete," said a representative from another U.S. industry association to which Microsoft belongs.

Recently, a pro-open source trade association tentatively named the Open Source and Industry Alliance formed in Washington as a way to fight back. And a representative from a non-Microsoft-backed association said: "The real issue is about Linux. What Microsoft really is geared up for is defeating and creating doubt about the sale and distribution of Linux."

How governments make their determinations is a key to the adoption of open-source products. The industry debate seems to center on how to value potential software acquisitions, as few dispute that governments can buy the products that best fit their needs.

There is no existing open-source law that U.S. industry can cite as the model, and ISC might develop one, said Robert Kramer, vice president for public policy at CompTIA. Kramer favors New Zealand's law, which lets agencies purchase software based on cost, function, security and the ability to work with other systems.

In April, Tony Stanco, director of the Center of Open Source and Government at George Washington University, called the proprietary software industry's alleged attempt to dissuade governments from laws requiring consideration of open source "a very subtle silencing of open source." Stanco's center cited South Africa as a model, agreeing with its explicit statement of the legitimacy of open source and its designation of a particular government agency to lead the open-source program.

The center also agrees with South Africa's decision not to favor preferences but adds that some preference may be necessary until open source is on the same competitive footing as proprietary software. And it backs South Africa's recognition of the "social" benefits of open-source products and its phased approach to adopting them.

Stay up-to-date with federal news alerts and analysis — Sign up for GovExec's email newsletters.
Close [ x ] More from GovExec