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Can France drive open source as Europe's standard?

The result may hinge on the difference between 'open' and 'open source'

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Analysis The French move to make open source software the official state standard, proposal 495, has created a great deal of interest, not to say scepticism. Are the two senators behind 495 mavericks who'll be ignored? Is this a classic French trick designed to boost French companies and undermine les americains? Will it happen, and if so, will the model sweep Europe? To some extent you could answer yes to each of the above. Elected representatives, as Al Gore and Tony Blair abundantly illustrate, are seldom well-informed, altruistic evangelists when it comes to IT, and the fact that Senators Laffitte and Tregouet seem astonishingly well-informed doesn't mean that France is brimful of other politicians who are. So even if the pair get at least some aspects of their proposal adopted, there's a substantial risk that it will be implemented in such a way as to help France, and French industry. Nevertheless, if it is adopted it stands some chance of being picked up by Europe as a whole, as Laffitte himself hopes. It's worth noting here that 495 is being proposed for two basic reasons. First, as a measure to make technology and information more accessible to all citizens, and second, to improve communications, cut costs and increase flexibility between and to and from state agencies. There's an overlap between these two areas, clearly, but overall you think of 495 as being, or forming part of, a French 'Superhighway' bill. That might be an advantage to Laffitte and Tregouet, but could be a disadvantage. French prime minister Lionel Jospin already has his own catch-all superhighway legislation in preparation, scheduled to arrive in the second half of next year, so there's a maverick aspect to 495. Some of the ideas behind 495 might therefore be able to hitch a lift on this, but on the other hand 495 might be entirely ignored by it. Laffitte himself seems to anticipate a faster road to law for the proposal; he suggested recently that after thorough debate it could be added as an extension to a pending law giving legal status to digital signatures. That would likely give it a faster and easier passage, but the closer the proposal gets to reality, the more likely it is to run into opposition, especially once Microsoft's woken up to the implications. A 495-based law could be seen as providing the mechanisms to build a France-wide, and then Europe-wide, information infrastructure that would empower the citizenry and accelerate European IT development and deployment. But it would also be one of those hybrid social/technological initiatives that tend to cause trouble between Europe and the US. If it were made compulsory (as 495 envisages) for state agencies to use only open source software it would be mere nanoseconds before the US trade team was popping up, thundering about protectionism and threatening the perpetrators with the World Trade Organisation. Governments do of course lay down requirements for the software they use, and these requirements do rule out quite a few suppliers. But an open source only policy wouldn't be related to factors like quality, performance, security or robustness. On the contrary, it would specifically rule out other software regardless of its quality, and would therefore be a sitting duck for WTO sanctions. If it happened then we'd almost certainly see the US and the WTO lining up to force France/Europe to buy Microsoft software, but there's plenty non-open source software out there besides Microsoft, and in its most extreme form the policy would outlaw that too. So if the proposers of 495 are to achieve long-term success they'll find themselves having to alter their pitch somewhat so that, rather than espousing open source and only open source, they achieve their aims by setting up hurdles which all classes of software can conceivably pass. These could include the use of open standards and open file formats, and depending on how far they went they might well achieve the two senators' aims without pushing the trade hot button by making open source compulsory. It's not entirely clear that Laffitte and Tregouet have thought this out fully as yet. Laffitte kicked off the forum for 495 a couple of weeks ago, but so far hasn't had a chance to respond to most of the discussion that's taken place there. It is however significant that he notes that software companies are starting to move from a sales to a service model, and that in addition to IBM and Sun "Microsoft seems to me ready to follow this path." That's actually pretty loaded, because although yes, Microsoft has expressed an intention to move to a service model, it's not going anywhere near an open source one. Does that mean Laffitte thinks Microsoft can be pushed further, or that he'd be prepared to settle for a free/low cost, partially open (in the old Open Systems mould, perhaps?) software model rather than full-blown open source? The answer is quite possibly a bit of both. Laffitte himself is no tyro when it comes to technology, and Tregouet is a French free software hero, and something of a geek. Laffitte can claim responsibility for the construction of Sophia-Antipolis, the tech city in the south that is France's version of Silicon Valley. Sophia-Antipolis, is a very French phenomenon; the original Silicon Valley just kind of grew, in an American kind of way, whereas the French implementation was specifically put there by the government. A similar centralised planning approach will govern whatever France does with respect to 495 and/or Jospin's initiative, and it will also be what drives France Telecom's rollout of the infrastructure and hardware to go with them. Tregouet, our French readers tell us, is an old school free software advocate who's well-known for his efforts in getting IT out into the countryside, and for a blockbuster 1998 report on new technologies in information and communication. The report is available in French here, but The Register was more impressed that the Good Senator is himself a .org, and seems to publish a regular tech newsletter on his site. You can see this week's edition here. Again it's in French, but it's obviously pretty comprehensive. We may well offer this guy a job. ®

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