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Government agencies adopt open source

State, cities see savings in sharing software

State and city governments, spearheaded by Massachusetts, are becoming the newest converts to the open source software movement.

The fledgling Government Open Code Collaborative, formed last year, has set up a nationwide repository for government software applications, hosted on a server at the Massachusetts Information Technology Division data center in Chelsea. The first "deposits" into the repository will be made this month by Massachusetts and Rhode Island agencies offering software freely available for other states to use.

Massachusetts chief information officer Peter J. Quinn, the collaborative's chairman, plans to detail these developments Wednesday at a breakfast held in conjunction with the LinuxWorld Conference & Expo, opening today in Boston's Hynes Veterans Memorial Convention Center. Quinn also will launch a national outreach campaign by the government collaborative, whose members now number 10 state agencies, five city agencies, and a state university department.

"The fundamental tenets of the open source community are around innovation and collaboration, and that's what we want to use it for," said Quinn, whose information technology division will deposit an open source "virtual law office" software program to helps state agencies procure outside legal services. "What we hope we get out of this is that people around the country will pick up on it and improve on it."

If the concept takes off, it eventually could save money and create better software for government agencies that share operations -- from registering motor vehicles to collecting taxes to issuing dog licenses -- with other agencies across the nation. Today, some agencies buy standardized proprietary software, while others contract with developers for custom software applications or develop them in-house. One persistent problem for government has been maintaining software programs no longer supported by the companies that developed them.

But the open source model also could create a new environment for software companies doing business with government agencies. In the future, they might have to develop products to open source standards that will be licensed to a state or city but be freely available for others to use or modify. Yet the larger pool of users potentially could create a new market for companies that maintain software applications, train software users, and provide security.

"It's a new ecology," suggested Dan Bricklin, a Newton software developer and consultant who sits on a Massachusetts state advisory committee for the open code project. "And I think the thing that scares some people is that they built their business around a different ecology."

But Bricklin said the collaborative is a recognition "that software is as important to the workings of government as bridges, water, and sewers."

The future model for companies jockeying for business in the government market may, in fact, resemble that of some of the Linux distributors, like Novell Inc. of Waltham and Red Hat Inc. of Raleigh, N.C., that will be represented at LinuxWorld this week.

Rather than license their software, in the manner of proprietary companies like Microsoft Corp. or Oracle Corp., such companies sell "subscriptions" of upgrade and technical support services for their free software distributions of the Linux open source operating system. Novell also markets "up-the-stack" proprietary tools, such as messaging and collaboration, that run on top of Linux as well as its own Netware system and other platforms. Novell is set this week to announce the shipping of OES, its open enterprise server software providing networking services to businesses and other enterprises.

"The open source movement is commoditizing things as it goes," said Jack L. Messman, chairman and chief executive of Novell. "It's commoditized the operating system, it's starting to commoditize the data base. So we have to continue moving up the stack."

Government offices are the latest arena for open source software, a movement launched two decades ago by Boston area hackers and hobbyists irked by the domination of proprietary software companies. In the past decade, the Linux operating system has gained momentum within the business world, embraced by technology giants like IBM Corp. and Hewlett-Packard Development Co. Businesses are heavily represented among the 7,000 people who have registered for LinuxWorld, which is being held in Boston for the first time.

In addition to the virtual law office, the Massachusetts Information Technology Division is planning to deposit into the new repository software for mapping geography and topography, and network management software that interrogates computers and other devices on a network to make sure they're working. The secretary of state's office in Rhode Island, meanwhile, is planning to deposit software for registering lobbyists, giving public notice of open meetings, and providing public access to constantly updated state government data.

Such software applications can be withdrawn and used by anyone, though only agencies signed onto the collaborative can make deposits or have a say in the direction of the collaborative.

Among its current members are the Pennsylvania office of information technology, the Utah governor's office, the West Virginia treasurer's office, the City of Worcester, the City of Newport News, Va., and the University of North Carolina's school of government. The collaborative doesn't yet include federal or foreign agencies.

Robert Weisman can be reached at weisman@globe.com.

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