U.S. government may explore standardizing on open source

Scott McNealy has been asked to prepare a paper on the subject of secure and cost-effective government through open source, reports BBC News. The paper will aim to convince the Obama administration to free itself from licensing fees to the likes of Microsoft, IBM and Oracle and any other software vendor that still operates on the software licensing model.

According to the story, McNealy told BBC News:

"It's intuitively obvious open source is more cost effective and productive than proprietary software," he said. "Open source does not require you to pay a penny to Microsoft or IBM or Oracle or any proprietary vendor any money."

President Obama has repeatedly declared that he will go through the budget line by line looking for costs to cut. While some U.S. governments do use some open source technologies, this is not the standard, as McNealy would recommend.

McNealy's viewpoint is not exactly unbiased given that he has spent nearly his entire career competing with Microsoft only to watch Microsoft grow itself into a $60 billion company. Others who advocate that the government standardize on open source are also biased, as are those who say the government should/could not standardize on it.

It is not truthful to say that open source software automatically means free software. Red Hat is a public company after all. Figures from Michael Tiemann, VP of RedHat and head of the Open Source Initiative, put the government's overspending on proprietary software at more than $1 trillion annually. Dean Baker at TruthOut, asserts that the government could save $200 per computer by using open source.

But Microsoft and all other proprietary software vendors cut the government such good deals that software licenses aren't the big expense. Management is where the cost comes in. A mandate to use open source software as a preferred solution is no better than one to avoid it. Government should invest in and use more open source software whenever an open source solution offers the best set of features for the best overall cost including administration time. In many cases, that criteria would make open source software the more cost-effective solution, but certainly not in every case.

And calls by Dean Baker and others for the government to take the money it "saves" on open source and use those funds to invest in the further development of open source are the kind of rhetoric that no one has really thought through. The open source industry wants the government to dump an influx of money into it? What is it about the government that makes it the best the best judge of which technologies should be funded and developed?

Software cannot be both totally free (which would, we assume, really mean government sponsored) and an economic industry engine that supplies a profitable product and offers good wages to those who work with it. Open source, in terms of making the code visible to all, has proven itself. Free software is also good for many uses. But good software for enterprise/government use isn't free, nor should it ever be.

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