Tories plan open door for open source
Right place, right time
A Tory strategy to make more use of open source software in the public sector is likely to tackle the culture of secrecy in government procurement, according to early details released to The Register.
Planned for publication next month and stemming from shadow chancellor George Osborne's adoption of a West Coast attitude, the plans are also likely to encourage the adoption of open standards and promote an indigenous open source industry.
Mark Thompson, a Cambridge University IT lecturer and businessman who is drawing up Osborne's request to make Britain the "open source leader of Europe", said that procurement - including the notoriously secretive gateway process - might be opened up so that it was easier for smaller firms to pay homage to the public purse.
These ideas have created some excitement in the apolitical open source movement (the flossers). Those who spoke to The Register about the Tory promise found it necessary to say the same six words: "I am not a Tory, but...".
The "but" for Thompson, like his peers, is that the current government's attitude to IT - "strong corporate ties, centrist, big systems integrators, the way business is done" - has kept the flossers out in the wilderness.
The Conservatives, on the other hand, think their open market philosophy can be tied up with the open source model and the principle of open government in one great big plan to revitalise the British software industry, society, and politics.
One implication of this plan could be similar to that hoped of open source in Africa: develop an indigenous software industry and avoid sending too much public money to Redmond. It's thoroughly Conservative: free the market from the yoke of monopoly power and reward local entrepreneurs.
"The current administration being pretty much a Microsoft shop, from the PM down, it's about time someone did something," said Thompson in an unguarded moment.
You will not hear much talk like this from here on in. The closer the flossers get to Tory power, the more they dampen their criticism of Microsoft. This is not about Microsoft, it's not anti-Microsoft. Microsoft has given the world some great software, they now say, but there's no denying the fact that the four-paned devil could have its vista sullied if these plans bear fruit.
Much of the trouble the flossers have with the government stems from their alarm over the big deals it has done with Microsoft. But, there is bigger game, which is the culture of secrecy in public sector procurement that has flourished behind the "commercial in confidence" defence. The Tory plan will work on the premise that secrecy hides bad decision making, protects vested interests, locks small, innovative firms out of government business, and could be one reason why the government has such a bad reputation for IT.
This will not result in a big bang switch-over from big business to cottage industries of flossers, said Thompson. There will be no diktats antithetical to the movement. There will likely be no radical government intervention at all, but rather, by opening procurement and publishing the architectural and interface standards of government systems, "extending the market" beyond its present cloister of big business.
The irony is that the foundation for the flossers has been laid under Labour - not necessarily by Labour, though its e-government drive has been crucial. Until now, Britain might not have been ready for open source. The procurement culture was haunted by the idea of public budgets being frittered away on fly-by-night vapourware merchants with their heads in the clouds. Perhaps, from the near-sighted left, it looks as though there is little to distinguish the flossers from the Tories anyway. ®
Open standards most important
Colin Hutcheson wrote:
"The question is not proprietary software versus open source, its really whether it makes sense to have access to source code to improve a software package."
I'd argue that more important than open source are open standards which allow communication between a variety of software packages from a variety of sources. Open standards promote a component-based approach too and component reuse. This then extends into the whole notion of interfaces between components, which can be negotiated, up into service orientation. The ability for services and components to interact, negotiate, and communicate will be key in the complex world of local and national government tools and communications. Wrappers can be placed around existing legacy systems providing communication facilities meaning that all manner of government services could be more automated and streamlined. At this point business process engineering comes into play.
It is certainly useful to have access to the source code for a package and it is theory possible to then extend it or maintain it after the original developers have moved on it is actually very difficult to do so in practice as most things are not sufficiently documented to allow anything more than relatively superficial changes for a reasonable cost:feature basis and sometimes starting from scratch can be more cost effective. Often you may be reliant on a particular tool being taken up by new developers that have a sufficient interest in discovering how the code works. (Of course loss of support is an issue with close source as well). If the tools and components are responsible for relatively small bits of functionality within an overall workflow implementing particular standard bits of communication then rewriting from scratch if required becomes a more tractable task.
re: Economic conservatism
"There is no evidence that open source software is better or more secure than commercial software."
Oh yes there is. Masses of it. Open your eyes and look at the world.
Open Source Software also is inherently more secure by design than closed source software. For every bad guy looking at the Source Code trying to find potential security holes to exploit, there are several good guys looking at it trying to find problems to fix.
"There has also been a tendency for open source to be rather unoriginal, most major products are just reverse engineered versions of popular commercial products (e.g. Open Office, Gimp)."
It only looks that way, if you ignore all the good stuff that happened in the days before computers entered the mainstream; in fact, before there was even such a thing as Closed Source software. OpenOffice.org and The GIMP are high-profile examples of Open Source alternatives created as a response to popular closed source software. Before there was Word, we typed letters in vi and mail-merged, or corrected repeated spelling errors, using sed. Before there was Exchange and Outlook, we used sendmail and pine. But this, being a matter of history whose knowledge is not required in order merely to use a computer, is below many people's radar.
"I'm surprised that conservatives would interfere in the free market by shutting out closed-source software and by embracing a collectivized approach to software development that greatly restricts the freedom and rights of programmers to control their own business plans and intellectual property."
It is Closed Source software that interferes with the free market, by artificially restricting what users can do with their data -- and users' data may well have a higher Intrinsic Value than the software with which it was manipulated.
A spreadsheet created in Microsoft Excel, or a letter created in Microsoft Word, can *only* be properly read by those programs, since the save file formats are proprietary to Microsoft. This gives Microsoft a -de facto- monopoly in software capable of working with these files: if the user has no choice save to access such a file, then they have, to all intents and purposes, no choice save to use Microsoft software in order to do that. (This is the subject of much ongoing debate, as government departments around the world wake up to the possibility that Microsoft may be in a position effectively to hold their data to ransom.)
When one buys a car from Ford, one is free to fit any manufacturer's accessories and run it on any manufacturer's fuels. The law forbids Ford from preventing the use of third-party accessories, whilst demanding that vehicles used on the public roads meet certain standards with respect to safety and pollution levels; this ensures that a competitive market can exist, whilst protecting other road users. When one buys a gas boiler from Glow-worm, one is free to connect it to any manufacturer's radiators and hot-water heater. One is only bound to make sure that the installation conforms to building regulations, which again exist to ensure safety and fuel efficiency. (One might question the need for government to legislate fuel efficiency, since an efficient appliance ought to be obviously preferable in the long term to an inefficient one. However, if fuel efficiency comes with a higher initial purchase price -- as was indeed once the case; until the SEDBUK regulations, which effectively forbade permanent pilots, came into force, boilers with electronic ignition were sold at a higher price than boilers using a wasteful [48 hours' operation of pilot light without main burner firing once = enough gas to cook a roast dinner for four] permanent pilot light, despite actually being *cheaper* to manufacture -- then consumers, and the environment, suffer needlessly.)
Yet nobody except Microsoft can supply software which *perfectly* renders a Word document or Excel spreadsheet. (This is in fact the subject of an ongoing court case.) Also, nobody (except Microsoft, and they don't want to) can supply extensions to Word or Excel.
Furthermore, by altering the save file formats and discontinuing the sale of older versions of the software, Microsoft can force users to upgrade to newer versions of Word or Excel: newer versions can read older versions' save files correctly, but older versions cannot read files saved by newer versions of the same program. When a PC -- which, like any mechanical device, is subject to wear and tear -- is eventually replaced at the end of its useful life, the new one is invariably supplied with the latest version of all software (older versions are simply not available, even as an extra-cost option), thus forcing everyone who wants to load any files saved by the new PC to upgrade to the latest software. This is a blatantly anti-competitive practice which has no place in a Free Market.
(Save file formats of Open Source software sometimes change out of simple necessity; but it is easy for any competent programmer to develop bidirectional migration aids, since the Source Code of the actual portions of the program that perform the saving and loading operations is available.)
Your assertion that the Open Source model restricts the right of programmers to control their own business plans is risible. A business plan which is evidently unworkable -- such as charging hundreds of pounds for a piece of software which can be reproduced for pennies -- deserves not only to fail, but to fail publicly and spectacularly so as to dissuade others from making the same mistake.
Furthermore, there is NO SUCH THING as "intellectual property". It is an anachronistic legal fiction, created at a time when the prevailing conditions suited it. Today, the conditions that made it feasible to treat ideas as though they were real, perishable goods no longer apply. In case you have forgotten, copyright (which is a misnomer, as it is really a privilege) was introduced in order to encourage the sharing of ideas by granting a TEMPORARY monopoly (hence, my use of the word "perishable" above) to authors over their work in exchange for a promise ultimately to share that work freely with Society At Large. The present copyright term of life plus seventy years is riduculously long and serves to subvert the original intent: copyright has now become a vehicle for allowing authors to profit at the expense of Society At Large, and the promised sharing of ideas happens only by the explicit request of the author.
Users of software have certain basic rights. We have the right to ENJOY the use of software without interference from any other party. We have the right to STUDY the operation of software, even if for no better reason than morbid curiosity. (Access to the Source Code is highly desirable in the exercise of this right.) We have the right to SHARE software with our neighbour, and we have the right to ADAPT it to our needs. (Access to the Source Code is highly desirable in the exercise of this right.) These rights are inherent and arise directly from the existence of software. From these rights springs an additional right to delegate any of the preceding rights to a person of our choice and whom we trust; and in recognition that the exercise of these rights has Intrinsic Value, we have the right to offer assistance in the exercise of these rights in return for reward.
If you don't like the idea that others may share and adapt your software, then DON'T WRITE SOFTWARE. Nobody is holding a gun to your head and forcing you to do it, are they?
Open Source <> local jobs
Surely a lot of the work created by adopting open source software in government projects would be outsourced to cheaper countries - no great increase in local jobs there I'd say.
Still, I'm all in favour of ditching proprietary software where practicable.