Unlocking the Code

It may be free and totally adaptable, but whether or when to use non- proprietary software is far from an open and shut case.
May 2004
Ellen Perlman
By Ellen Perlman  |  Former columnist
Ellen Perlman was a GOVERNING staff writer and technology columnist.

To open source or not to? The notion of downloading free software from the Internet has some states salivating at the potential savings--and some software companies alarmed about losing business. While open source software--Linux is one of the better-known alternatives to commercial software--has been around for a while, a recent flurry of state legislation and administrative policies have brought out the fighting forces.

Most states already use some open source software, which is free computer code that programmers can modify or customize for their agency's needs and then offer as rewritten code to others to use. (With proprietary software such as Windows, the code belongs to the vendor and buyers pay a license to use it--and to have it modified, upgraded and maintained.) Delaware, for instance, has servers and other behind-the-scenes technology running on Linux as well as many systems running on Windows. "There are a lot of opportunities to mix and match," says Mark Headd, deputy principal assistant to Delaware's CIO.

Massachusetts has taken that mix-and-match ability one step further. Its Office for Administration and Finance requires state agencies to consider open source when buying new software. At least five states have introduced bills requiring their agencies to consider open source software as an option. None have passed. When Oregon state Representative Phil Barnhart introduced such a bill last year, opponents deemed it unnecessary, arguing that agencies can look at and buy open source software anyway. "Technically, they're right," Barnhart says. "Whether agencies will do it or not is another question." As other proponents of open source policies argue, the policies are necessary since there are no armies of sales and marketing people to promote the software. Purchasing officials may not know enough to ask about it in the first place.

Vendors aren't happy with what they see as a trend toward "preference" legislation. Speaking for his members, Mike Wendy, spokesman for the Initiative for Software Choice, which includes Microsoft, EDS and Intel, says that what the organization objects to is having states use laws and policy dictates to skew the marketplace to favor one type of software--which is how it views recent open source measures.

Some of the people pushing open source legislation agree with that sentiment. Their point, according to Tom Stanco, founding director of the Center of Open Source & Government at George Washington University, is not that open source software should be mandated but that governments should be pushed to look at its advantages. For instance, agencies archive a lot of information, from birth and death records to criminal histories. Proprietary software is constantly being updated, and an entity may reach a point where it's difficult or impossible to use newer versions to retrieve information from old systems. Or new programmers may not know how to use old systems. With open software, the code is open to programmers to figure out how to retrieve stored information, now or 100 years from now.

That is not to say that a government would use only open source software. Delaware doesn't ever expect to toss out its proprietary software. "We're trying to create some efficiencies and save some money and work," says Headd.

Open source is not without risks. There are questions about interoperability, such as when governments need to exchange documents and their operating systems can't talk to each other. "Most of the world runs Windows," says Ted Schadler, vice president of research at Forrester, an IT research company. "Linux is still a fringe element." There can also be hidden costs. Open source software still needs support, and there are companies to provide it. But that could end up costing as much as commercial software.

With its new policy in place, Massachusetts is now moving forward with a "virtual law office" that will be developed using open source code. Massachusetts has nothing against proprietary software. The point is to find innovations any way possible, says Peter Quinn, the state's CIO. As he sees it, the value of open source is that there are many more contributors to the product, enhancing the chances for more innovation.

Ellen Perlman
Ellen Perlman | Former columnist | mailbox@governing.com