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Open-source battle is heating up

The future of the computer software industry was being fought out last week in the Massachusetts Senate. It was just a skirmish, but dozens more just like it are happening in legislatures around the world. And the outcome will go a long way toward determining the shape of the industry in years to come. Our state's role in the drama began in September, when a remarkable memo leaked from the office of Eric Kriss, Massachusetts secretary of finance and administration. The memo said, or seemed to say, that the entire state would abandon the use of traditional computer software and replace them with "open-source" programs.

 

So what? Well, imagine being told that your company was getting rid of all its Microsoft Corp. software, like Windows and Office, two of the most widely used programs on Earth. Or that you'd be losing all your Apple Computer Inc. machines running Macintosh software, or all of your Oracle Corp. databases. Most of the world runs on this kind of proprietary, "closed-source" software, in which the underlying source code remains the confidential property of the software vendor.

Under the Kriss plan, such software would be replaced where possible with open source software. The Linux operating system is the best-known open-source product. For one thing, the underlying code is given away to open-source customers, allowing them to modify the software as needed. Besides, open-source products are generally available at no cost for the code itself. The customer pays only for training and support.

So governments save money while liberating themselves from the whims of companies like Microsoft or Oracle, who can raise prices or make inconvenient changes in the design of their software whenever they please. So what's not to like about the Kriss memo?

Plenty, if you're Microsoft or Oracle, or any of the thousands of smaller companies that make closed-source software for government agencies. According to the research firm IDC Corp., federal, state and local governments spend $34 billion a year on software. If Kriss's ideas were to catch on across the land, a lot of that revenue disappears, and much of what remains won't go to firms like Microsoft, which refuses to offer open-source products.

This is no idle threat. Texas, Oregon, and Delaware are talking about going open source. Overseas, one of Australia's six states has passed legislation mandating the use of open-source code and similar plans are popping up from Peru to China.

It's a long way from here to the death of traditional software. But if one state or nation succeeds in switching, it sends a message to every other government and large business -- this open-source stuff is for real.

And that's why the voices of the world's leading software firms were heard at last week's hearing of the state senate's Post Audit and Oversight Committee. Microsoft submitted testimony claiming that the Kriss policy would "severely limit software choice for state agencies." An official of CompTIA, a computer industry group that counts Microsoft among its 16,000 members, said that an open-source policy would jeopardize thousands of software industry jobs in Massachusetts.

Senator Marc Pacheco, a Taunton Democrat, ripped into the Kriss plan, saying it violates state procurement laws.

"We have a procurement statute that's on the books that allows and directs open competition," he said.

The new policy would tilt the playing field in favor of open-source software. In Pacheco's view, that not only freezes out local software companies from lucrative contracts, it also forces state government to use open-source products even when they're inferior to traditional software.

Not so, said Kriss. The state will still buy closed-source software when it's best for the job. But it will make an effort to find good open-source substitutes. Kriss can't understand Pacheco's problem with the plan.

"Everybody I've spent time with in the technical community thinks it's terrific," he said.

Whatever the state's policy, there are no open-source substitutes for many of the specialized processing jobs performed by governments. So relatively small companies that make programs for, say, handling driver's license applications or tracking sales tax payments have little to fear.

But move down the software stack to the basic services nearly every system needs -- operating systems, databases, office software suites -- and you'll find excellent open-source substitutes: Linux, FreeBSD, OpenOffice, MySQL, and others. As a result, the commercial firms most likely to suffer from government adoption of open source are the Microsofts, the Sun Microsystems, and the Oracles. Every government agency that goes open source represents a defeat for them, one that transcends lost sales revenues. Because if open-source software is good enough for Massachusetts, it's probably good enough for General Motors -- or for Cindy's Bar & Grill.

That's why Eric Kriss and other open-source advocates in governments around the world should cut back on holiday feasting and return to work in fighting mode. This is liable to get nasty.

Hiawatha Bray can be reached at bray@globe.com.

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