Industry Leaders Have Open Debate

At Harvard University's annual Cyberposium, industry leaders debated a number of topics related to open source, including the issue of open source versus open standards.

CAMBRIDGE, Mass.—When is "open" not so open? Industry leaders debated this topic and others related to the future of open source software at Harvard University over the weekend.

Among the major issues discussed at the Cyberposium 2004, an annual technology showcase put on by the Harvard Business School here, was the issue of open source versus open standards, a topic that could become more important in procurements, as evidenced by the recent IT procurement policy set by the state of Massachusetts, which switched from a planned focus on open source to a focus on open standards and "best value."

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The state of Massachusetts last week issued a new IT procurement policy that specified best value as the primary criteria for assessing what to buy for state systems. Previously, state officials had proclaimed open source was going to become the preferred target for acquisitions, as have other states and countries recently. Industry executives discussed this issue and others during a couple of panels at the Harvard Cyberposium.

"Often when these proposals are put into place, governments come back and say, We want to purchase software based on value," said Jason Matusow, manager of Microsoft Corp.s Shared Source Initiative.

Dan Frye, director of the Linux Technology Center at IBM, said, "If we sit down with a government, we want to be able to say whether we should approach it with proprietary or open source."

Added Simon Phipps, chief technology evangelist at Sun Microsystems Inc.: "Its dangerous to mandate any form of technology whether open source or proprietary."

In an off-the-cuff remark, Mike Tiemann, chief technology officer at Red Hat Inc., in Raleigh, N.C., said, "[Mandating open source software] is far less serious and immoral than the United States willingness to export democracy by force."

More on point, however, Tiemann asked: Can proprietary software be an open standard? Or can open software become an open standard without going through a standards process?

Still, open standards versus open source represents a potential key issue in the emerging procurement process—particularly for governments, some say.

"The standards question is very deep," said Jonathan Zittrain, co-director of the Berkman Center for Internet and Society and professor at Harvard Law School. "The need for standards is like the [U.S. presidential candidate Howard] Dean campaign: Whether you like him or not, its grassroots—the campaign is standard-less."

Tiemann said open source represents a "user-driven" model of innovation. "There are users that argue 85 percent of all innovation comes from suggestions and implementations by users," he said.

IBMs Frye added that open source "introduces market forces into every element of the IT stack. The customer base has choice. It returns an element of control to the user."

Next page: Open source offers more choice.