While I missed out in negotiating a coalition government for the UK last week, I am able to inform National Business Review readers about one issue that united the Conservatives, the Liberal-Democrats and Labour: a desire to see the country adopt open source software.
The Tories pledged to “level the playing field” for open source in government IT contracts.
The Labour government had already made a strong commitment to open source software, recognising it as the most important source of innovation and creativity.
As the Open Source, Open Standards and Re-Use: Government Action Plan published by the Cabinet Office in February 2009 put it: “The [UK] government considers positive action is needed to ensure a level playing field between open source and proprietary software and to realise the contribution open source software can make to wider aims of re-use and open standards.”
Closer to home, Wellington mayoral candidate Jack Yan wants to build Wellington’s intellectual capital.
Last week he stated that he “would like to see Wellington be the first open source city in the nation” and asked the New Zealand Open Source Society to help him formulate an open source policy for the city.
This would align Wellington with other Pacific Rim cities such as San Francisco and Vancouver, which have already adopted such policies.
Why do Mr Yan and his fellow politicians in the UK favour free and open source software (Foss)?
The reasons are clear and stem from a combination of a dynamic, super fast process of distributed creativity and innovation, a user-centred business model and a focus on user freedom.
Foss licences such as the General Public Licence (GPL) guarantee clients and users rights to use, modify and share software code without being beholden to anyone, so long as these rights are passed on to other users of the software.
This creates a perfect economic market, where monopolies and monopolistic rents are nearly impossible to achieve, barriers to entry are low and information between suppliers and their clients is symmetrical.
Countries such as Malaysia, Britain, Denmark, Brazil, Holland and France have all recognised that to reap the undoubted benefits FOSS can bring they need to develop pro-active policies and strategies for its adoption.
New Zealand: ineffectual
The New Zealand government has not shown such foresight or much appetite for changing the status quo.
The approach was set out by the State Services Commission in 2003. It states that open source “should be considered” alongside other offerings.
This is an ineffective approach considering the uphill struggle that Foss faces to gain acceptance, especially in critical areas of the government’s infrastructure, which are dominated by monopolies.
For example, government agencies almost never seek alternatives to Microsoft software on their personal computers. It is not unusual for the largest single IT contract an agency has to be with Microsoft.
Microsoft dictates terms
Due to its monopoly Microsoft is able to dictate its price, terms of service and audit procedures.
The situation is so bad that even if you donate 100 computers to your local school, and have them running Ubuntu Linux and OpenOffice (Foss alternatives to Windows and MS Office), the Ministry of Education will still pay Microsoft for 100 Windows and MS Office licences.
How can it be sensible for the government to continue paying hundreds of millions of dollars for software for which high-quality free and open alternatives exist? Monopolies such as the one on the PC make it very hard for new and better models to replace the old ways.
Like telcos, or power
In the past New Zealand has recognised the harm caused by monopolies in the telco and power industries. It has responded with legislation, regulation and strong policy to address the balance and ensure consumers and taxpayers are getting a fair deal.
It is well past the time where the country needs to look at similar tactics in the software area.
This is not particularly convenient. There will be some disruption, and even short-term cost. But the medium to long term benefits of having a functional marketplace in the world of IT, of competition and innovation, far outweigh these costs. The cost of our current dysfunction is crippling, both financially and the lack of agility that results.
But, often, the right thing to do is not the most immediately convenient. It is time for civil servants to set aside cosy convention and take up the challenge that positive change represents.
And who knows, the financial savings may even keep a few of them in jobs.
Donald Christie is president of the NZ Open Source Society and a director of Catalyst IT. Email: firstname.lastname@example.org
Fri, 21 May 2010