Dear Obama: Please consider open-source a waste of your time
Ruby on Rails will not save the planet
Last week, several big names in open source tossed a letter  at American President Barack Obama, urging him to mandate that no government IT purchase be made without someone scrutinizing the software license. "Dear President Obama," it read, "please consider open source."
The letter contained all the classic elements of an open source group hug: freedom, interoperability, community, and transparency. This letter was signed by higher-ups at companies we know and love, like Red Hat, Novell, Unisys, and a handful of other smaller players who want to suckle from the teat of a federal contract.
"Congratulations on your historic and unprecedented presidential victory. We, the authors, are proud to live and work in the nation that elected you and hope your presidency will be as successful as your campaign," the letter begins. Off to a great start: an absolution of white guilt. Now the foot is wedged in the door.
"We believe in the critical role of open-source software to create the applications and infrastructure necessary to support electronic medical records and other government-funded technology projects."
Ah, yes, open source electronic medical records - a panacea for the health care industry. Vendors have been pushing this one for years, with little success, as they don't understand that the inefficiencies in health care keep a lot of people in work. Really. Ask any technical college about a career in "medical billing." The letter was signed by the CEO of Medsphere, a company that provides services around open source medical software, but I'm sure they just brought him in as a domain expert. Right. Because if the idea was really that good, it would thrive without a federal mandate. Plus, it's way easier to legislate your way to success than it is to market your product.
"Open-source software has already resulted in dramatic cost reductions in many technology areas, including: infrastructure, thanks to...products like Linux, Apache, Tomcat, and others; application development, thanks to tools like Eclipse, Ruby on Rails, [and] subversion; communication and collaboration, thanks to open-source applications such as OpenOffice and WordPress."
Alright, name dropping. Now we're cookin' with Crisco. The software is free, so it dramatically reduces cost - that is, until you need to call in a consultant like RedHat to come set the thing up and make it inter-operate with your existing systems. Just so you don't forget the name, RedHat has signed the letter. Now, any industry looking to do business with the government will tout the benefits of its methodology, but only the nerds will write to the president to tell him how awesome Ruby on Rails is. I'd rather my president be concerned with, I don't know, the decline in gross domestic product, rather than whether some app server in the Department of Energy runs Tomcat or WebSphere.
"One example of [open source in a vertical market] is TriSano from Collaborative Software Initiative, an open source, citizen-focused surveillance and outbreak management system for infectious disease, environmental hazards, and bioterrorism attacks."
You hear that? Open source even stops terrorists. In America, you're eight times more likely to be killed by a police officer than a terrorist, but we don't have any open source software to mitigate that threat. Sounds to me like these fellows from Collaborative Software Initiative, whose names are signed John Hancock-style at the top of the list, went after the wrong market.
It used to be that you make a sale by pitching your product to a decision maker. In a failing economy, however, the best way to sell software we can come up with is a letter to Santa. Sign of a bunch of amateurs or sign of the times?
Reasonable but useless
Shameless sales pitches aside, what this group is asking for is reasonable. The federal government should be required to consider whether or not the code is open source as part of a technology acquisition process. That doesn't mean that some bloke in a windowless office in Washington D.C. be required to add Linux to a proposal for a government contract. It just means that when eight levels of committees are deciding what to spend money on, one of the lines of evaluation be how the software is licensed.
Reasonable in theory, toothless in practice. If you take two parts pathological aversion to risk, mix it together with one part apathy and a jigger of laziness, what you get is the government workforce culture. If the Santa Claus of Washington D.C. does by chance make the inauguration season dreams of a few good little boys and girls come true, in that next committee meeting at the Department of Redundancy Department, open source will be examined, considered, and dutifully ignored.
For government workers, open source is too much of a risk. They have used Microsoft and others in the past, and they works. Everybody is complacent with software they know. If one day somebody shows up to work and Microsoft Word has been replaced by OpenOffice, well, meetings will be called. Of course, nobody will get fired over open source software (very few things short of a felony conviction will get you fired from a government job), but there will be forms filed in triplicate, maybe even quadruplicate. It's not that government employees fear risk. They just have nothing to gain by taking one. Mandating that open source be considered doesn't alter the path of least resistance.
If open source is going to make any real headway in the government, there needs to be an incentive to choose it, not a rule. Time and again, this is where the open source community falls short: Quality code isn't enough of an incentive. You can put the best engineering in the world into your product, but if you don't know how to market, your project will rot in the source repository.
If this new marketing strategy is the one that the open source community is going with, let me offer a free piece of advice: This pitch will likely be more effective at the North Pole than on Pennsylvania Avenue. ®
Ted Dziuba is a co-founder at Milo.com  You can read his regular Reg column, Fail and You, every other Monday.