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Open source unites for US government dollars

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OSCON Billions of dollars and people hours are spent each year to lobby US politicians over legislation and lucrative government contracts.

Telcos, hardware, and closed-source software companies are not strangers to this game.

Now Linux and open-source are getting their act together. Seventy open-source companies and organizations have established Open Source for America.

Among its goals, OSA lists helping "effect change in the US Federal government policies and practices to allow the federal government to better utilize free and open source software."

OSA said it would coordinate collaboration among the various open-source communities with the federal government on technology requirements, and also attempt to raise the awareness of open-source in the US executive and legislative branches of government.

The group's membership is a shopping list of open-source communities and companies trading on open-source, from Google to Debian. Strangely, the one vendor that arguably did most to drive Linux in the early days, IBM, is not a member, while Sun Microsystems - which resisted Linux, came late to open-source, and is soon to become an ex-company when it's acquired by Oracle, which is an OSA member - has made the organization's list.

OSA board members include Ubuntu creator Mark Shuttleworth, GPL legal eagle Eben Moglen, Linux Foundation executive director Jim Zemlin, and Red Hat's vice-president of open-source affairs Michael Tiemann.

Government has been one of the most receptive areas to open-source and Linux, so you'd think there was less to worry about here than in other sectors. Open-source has been sucked into government thanks to the free availability of code and low prices of products.

US president Barack Obama's $787bn stimulus spending, though, might mean there's now more at stake. Telcos and IT vendors are working out ways for government departments to spend stimulus money on their particular products in shovel-ready projects.

Simon Witts, corporate vice president for Microsoft's enterprise and partner group, last week told Microsoft partners that everybody's sniffing out the stimulus money in various government IT contracts. "That's very smart because it provides buoyancy," he said.

Linda Zecher, Microsoft's corporate vice president for the worldwide public sector, added that stimulus money could be used to help "retool" the way government works. She noted opportunities in virtualization and communication, the latter using SharePoint.

Much remains unknown about how the OSA will work or be funded.

Zemlin, though, told The Reg that the OSA would help fill the knowledge gap that exists inside government on open-source, and that it would help unify individual efforts. "One of those is on the positive side, and the other is against those who advocate the opposite, that Linux is unsafe and you'll have to open your nuclear system's code," Zemlin said.

While being used at the programmer and product levels, Linux and open-source have found themselves sucked into the debate between open- versus closed-source at a policy level in the US and abroad.

The biggest example was the Commonwealth of Massachusetts, which in 2005 mandated that all public documents should use Open Document Format (ODF). Microsoft lobbied the state, CIO Peter Quinn who authored the policy resigned, and now Massachusetts has adopted Microsoft's Office Open XML, which had not been available at the time of the ODF row.

Several years before that, Microsoft chief executive Steve Ballmer interrupted a European vacation to meet city leaders from Munich to try to talk them out of standardizing the city's desktops on Linux.

Zemlin compared OSA at this stage to a think tank that would act through publications and one-to-one meetings, rather than a K-street-style lobbyist that raises money to influence politicians.

Bootnote

Microsoft contributed so much cash to US campaigns and politicians in 2008 that it became just one of two tech vendors to make a top-ten list of US donors, according to watchdog OpenSecrets. AT&T ranked fourth, with Goldman Sachs topping all US companies. Microsoft spent $4bn, just behind AT&T - the biggest tech-sector contributor, and traditionally a big spender, at $5.6bn - with Goldman Sachs at $7.1bn. OpenSecrets accorded Microsoft the title of "heavy hitter". ®

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