Comment: March on open source in public sector

13 Apr 2005

Towards the end of last year, when I was speculating about what might happen in the area of e-government this year, I said that open source software would start to make a greater impact. I know there are many people who consider open source to be the only way to go forward and that any government not fully committed to it is in some way remiss.

As I said before, some of these people seem also to be prepared to die on the cross for their deeply held convictions. And to be fair to people in government, who generally adhere to the basic principles of serving the citizen, they too are keen to look at the potential of open source software for cutting their costs. But the key factor for people in government is that they are obliged to be careful about what they spend and with whom.

Their strategy is to ensure that they don’t create problems for themselves (and by extension, for us), by getting into situations where they end up paying a lot for things that eventually either diminish in usefulness or are overtaken by cheaper solutions. That’s why the dreaded condition of ‘supplier lock-in’ is something they try to avoid through the use of open software development standards, which make it possible to more easily mix different products (and therefore suppliers). Up to relatively recently, open source software, despite the noise from the fundamentalists, wasn’t a major or significant threat to the major software vendors because it hadn’t been sufficiently tidy in terms of the total service to be universally deployed.

This is not to deny that many people have achieved quite a lot using open source. But from my experience, the people who have achieved most success are usually very competent IT people who have a strong command of their job and have a lot of determination. So, for example, you have a selection of open source servers happily running in a number of public service organisations and operating quite well. And you have a smaller number of applications developed in open source software that have achieved significant savings for the organisations concerned. But it is important to remember that just because it’s open source it doesn’t mean that it comes free in terms of support. The fact is, support costs money. So you wouldn’t want to get too bright-eyed at the prospect of saving millions.

Another factor is, of course, that having open source software on the server isn’t a hassle because you don’t have to go around everyone’s desk installing stuff — you just need to focus on the servers, which tend to be few in number and in close proximity. And this is a factor when it comes to considering desktop application software, because if you have to actually go to every desk to install upgrades and fixes, it soon becomes a costly and cumbersome exercise. That overhead is taken into account when people are comparing costs in the decision-making process.

Yet it is interesting to see the growing trend in governments and local governments in many countries towards the use of open source — and at the desktop level as well. It seems as though the march is unstoppable and those who are in the ‘closed source’ business need to sit up and take note at this stage. For instance, one of my civil service contacts was telling me recently that Open Office — an open source application suite that gives functionality similar to Microsoft’s Office product — has become a viable option to be considered seriously as organisations face decisions to renew their desktop licences. Its viability is greatly enhanced by the fact that it’s free — or “libre software” as it’s known by the open source community.

My friend put it simply: “When you’re faced with the prospect of having to explain why you paid €300 per desk for software when you could have had the same functionality for absolutely free, there is just no decision to make — you’d be absolutely mad to opt for the expensive option — it would be unethical to waste public resources by paying out money where it isn’t required.” And, he says, this is going to crop up more over the coming year and beyond because the combined public service is paying a serious amount of money in licence fees for the word processing, spreadsheet and presentation software used throughout most organisations. And no prize for guessing who the main provider of the software is!

The situation is a bit like when the PC first started to appear and many of the bigger mainframe and mini computer manufacturers didn’t recognise the ‘disruptive technology’ that would eventually drive some of them out of business. Ok, it might not be quite the same as the situation described so eloquently by Clayton M Christensen in his book, The Innovator’s Dilemma — where he focused on the disk drive industry as the ‘fruit flies’ of the technology world (fruit flies being the perfect laboratory subjects because of their one-day life span) and suggested that, paradoxically, industries can fail by staying too close to their customers and investing in “technology, products and manufacturing capabilities that satisfied their customers’ next-generation needs”. In this case, I’m not sure that it is directly analogous to the scenario depicted by Christensen, but there may well be a lesson in there somewhere — especially in recognising that the environment has changed and that the siege mentality can restrict your options.

It reminds me of a military man I spoke to once about his unit’s response in the event of an attack on the installation they were protecting. He had 40 men at any one time. I asked how many he could muster if a bus full of terrorists arrived. “Just three,” he said, because they were on guard duty at outside locations. The military response to an attack is to secure their defences — they lock themselves into their secure area and remain there until the danger has passed or they are rescued. That makes a lot of sense when you have someone who can actually come to the rescue! If you haven’t, you’d better start doing some lateral thinking.

By Syl O’Connor