A More Open Government

Should the government boost its use of open-source software? It seems obvious that if the government can satisfy its IT needs more efficiently through open source, it should do so. However, as recent debates over industry bailouts and stimulus packages remind us, government spending decisions must be guided by more than bargain-hunting concerns. We must also consider what the impact of fewer government dollars will be on the software industry, much of which is wedded to proprietary licensing and business models.

More than a few times now, I've heard it said that our new president, Barack Obama, will be an open-source president. Owing to the many meanings of "open," this catchy tagline has been used in a lot of different contexts, most of which relate to transparency in government.

There are, however, indications that the Obama administration is taking a close look at open source in the form most familiar to us, as a model for software development and licensing.

According to a recent BBC report, former Sun Microsystems CEO Scott McNealy has been tapped by Obama's administration to prepare a report on the use of open-source software in government.

Should the government boost its use of open-source software? It seems obvious that if the government can satisfy its IT needs more efficiently through open source, it should do so. As taxpayers, we want to see the dollars we send to Washington stretched as far as possible, and the fact is that for many workloads, open-source platforms and applications can serve just as well or better than proprietary alternatives.

However, as recent debates over industry bailouts and stimulus packages remind us, government spending decisions must be guided by more than bargain-hunting concerns.

We must also consider what the impact of fewer government dollars will be on the software industry, much of which is wedded to proprietary licensing and business models. With customers cutting back on spending and software companies enduring layoffs alongside companies in most other sectors of our economy, it's easy to argue that the drop in money spent on software licenses that would come with a larger open-source approach would prove taxing for the tech sector.

However, the lack of licensing fees doesn't free open-source software from the deployment costs that come along with any sort of software. Customization, integration and management all represent opportunities to make money.

What's more, where open-source software is lacking, the government can pay to have the software extended to suit its needs, a scenario for which open source is particularly well-suited.

Certainly, there's nothing preventing the government from commissioning proprietary software vendors to extend their wares to suit the nation's needs, but sticking to the open road gives the government the opportunity to get a lot more bang for its (our) buck.

That's because dollars devoted to enhancing open-source platforms and applications to better suit the government's operational needs double as infrastructure investments--software building blocks that can enable companies to deliver value higher up the stack and invent new employment and profit-generating engines.

The gamut of Web-generation businesses from search and social media to SAAS (software as a service) and the cloud could not exist without their open-source software foundations. Future tech industries--and the customers who will come to depend on them--will manage to reach higher, innovate faster and operate more efficiently through the sort of down-stack commoditization that open source enables.

To be sure, any significant government shift toward open source would prove disruptive to proprietary software makers as well, but fortunately the open-source arena is accessible to all comers, and a move to openness is well within these companies' power.

The software industry incumbents that opt to embrace open source--even if only to the extent that federal dollars make it worth their while--are arguably in the best place to profit from the new sorts of businesses that can get off the ground once more platform and standards pieces can be taken for granted.

As I discussed in my last few posts on Microsoft and open source, there can be lucrative roads to openness even for companies that seem least likely to embrace the model.

McNealy's own Sun Microsystems has made dramatic strides toward embracing open source over the past several years, a fact that McNealy will no doubt cite in his recommendations.