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A piece of the action
Governments the world over spend billions on Microsoft products and other proprietary software. Open source advocates contend their wares are cheaper and better. On one side of the tug of war is Bill Gates and other entrepreneurial heavyweights who say their software is secure and well-supported On the other side are grassroots techies who contend that open source software (such as Linux) is more adaptable, innovative and convenient
Kate Heartfield
The Ottawa Citizen
Bruno Schlumberger, The Ottawa Citizen
From left, Joseph Potvin, Russell McOrmond, Claude Gagne, Richard Lessard and Glen Newton are members of GOSLING -- Getting Open Source Logic Into Governments. As an informal research network, the group is acknowledged and encouraged by the Treasury Board Secretariat.
(Bill Gates)
(A penguin)
A few years ago Joseph Potvin, an IT analyst at Public Works and Government Services Canada, helped develop the federal government's first custom open source software. Late last month, he spoke to bureaucrats from the Treasury Board Secretariat, explaining the benefits of open source.

It's 5:30 on a warm, autumn Friday afternoon. Three men sit with pints of Keith's in the Byward Market courtyard patio behind the Blackthorn Café. They are three of the most unassuming guys you'll ever see, in T-shirts, ball caps and jeans. You might never guess that they comprise the Ottawa vanguard of a global, tech-centred tug of war, with the considerable coffers involved in government software spending up for grabs.

On one side of the contest are the members of this beer-drinking bunch -- all diehard supporters of open source technology -- and their increasingly successful counterparts in the United States, Europe and South America. On the other are Microsoft and a high-powered software industry lobby group which quietly launched in May.

Ordinarily, the likes of Bill Gates and other software heavyweights would be the Goliaths in any tussle against grassroots techies. But in this case, the software industry has had to take counter-measures after its open source adversaries made inroads in France, Germany, Peru, Argentina and even California. The guys at the café would like to add Canada to that list.

On Fridays after work, members of GOSLING -- Getting Open Source Logic Into Governments -- gather at the café to discuss what can be done to change the way Canadian governments buy and develop software. They say governments should be using more open source software. Some even want governments to say they'll only use open source.

GOSLING (whose name also plays off the penguin mascot used by open source mainstay Linux) is still an informal gathering of like-minded people, from both the private and public sectors, born at the government-hosted Open Source Solutions Showcase last spring. "At the end of the week," remembers Joseph Potvin, "It was, 'Who wants to go out for a beer?' And then the people who showed up said, 'Who wants to go out next Friday?'" Some weeks there are 10 or more people, sometimes only two or three.

And yet, it only takes a few people to advance a big idea. GOSLING is already one of the "communities of practice," or informal research networks, acknowledged and encouraged by the Treasury Board Secretariat. Potvin is an IT analyst at Public Works and Government Services Canada. Many of GOSLING's members hope their group will become a GOOSE -- Government Official Open Source Engagement. They plan to create a Web portal in cooperation with Public Works, to extend their pub conversation to the Web.

From there, who knows? "We're hoping that once the GOSLING portal is there, then other layers of government might come in," says member Russell McOrmond. "We wanted this whole GOSLING thing so the knowledge could trickle up, and eventually hit the ministers," he adds.

If software is open source, its code is published in full for all to see. It is usually still copyrighted and licensed, but its licence terms state that the author permits the code to be published. Otherwise, software is closed source. Most proprietary, or owned, software is closed source.

The nuances of terminology tend to blur in everyday use. More often than not, "open source" or "free software" means Linux (the most popular open source operating system). More often than not, "closed source" or "proprietary" means software produced by companies such as Microsoft.

Chris Herrnberger, an Ottawa Linux consultant, says Ottawa arguably has Canada's most active open source community. An international Linux symposium happens here every year, and an important section of the high-tech community is connected to open source development (including Corel, although its love affair with Linux seems to be fading.)

Open source enthusiasts have a practical argument: When programmers can see each others' code, they can make it better. But they also have an ideology. Some see open source as the foundation of the information age; the first users of computers were also usually programmers.

"A lot of people think it's a new movement, but open source is how software was being done in the '60s," says Dee-Ann LeBlanc, a Linux enthusiast and writer in Vancouver. "In fact, it's going back to the scientific method. It is peer review. Your peers can always look at your code."

For some activists, promoting open source is a social revolution. Richard Stallman, the American founder of the Free Software Movement, dramatically titled his book Free as in Freedom. Unsuccessful presidential candidate Ralph Nader supports the open source movement in the U.S.

Thus, the public sector is a natural battlefield, where open source warriors expect to meet the forces of proprietary, commercial software. Governments are big consumers of software, and big developers of software.

"It's quite possible that the federal government is the largest producer of software in the country," says Potvin. A big switch in public-sector purchasing could have an avalanche effect on the software market.

Plus, governments make laws that affect software development in the private sector, so their internal vision of software matters. How governments buy software is everybody's business -- as it is when governments buy anything. Governments might be expected to listen to arguments that are based half on ideology, half on the merit principle.

The federal government has been quietly using externally developed open source programs for years -- as has just about anyone who's ever turned on a computer, although they may not know it. For example, the government Web site runs on Apache servers, an open source product.

Many smaller governments -- from a school district in Kamloops, to the city of Largo, Fla. -- already use internal open source applications and operating systems. "Linux is running under the hood of a lot of places you wouldn't necessarily know," says LeBlanc.

But many people, LeBlanc included, want governments to go further and declare procurement policies that favour open source products. In 1999, the Canada Europe Round Table, a trade association, endorsed the idea that governments should use open source.

On the other side of the tug of war, The Initiative for Software Choice leads the struggle against government endorsement of open source. The Initiative is based in the U.S., but has members around the world. Those members are mostly software vendors, and include Microsoft.

The Initiative formed out of the Computing Technology Industry Association (CompTIA), a certifying body for software vendors and resellers.

Robert Kramer, vice-president for public policy for CompTIA, says the Initiative for Software Choice was a natural step, given the momentum the open source movement has internationally.

"One of our members, actually more than one, came to us and pointed out that there's this trend among governments to make proposals for procurement that favour open source software. We're not against open source by any means, just mandated preference laws. These kinds of exclusionary preference legislation -- and it's now (being considered in) up to about 70 countries -- will exclude software from the government marketplace."

In the U.S., several state and municipal governments have made laws or resolutions favouring open source in their procurement policies. California is considering a strongly-worded Digital Software Security Act which would limit state software purchases to open source.

The proposed law reads in part: "To guarantee the succession and permanence of public software and data, it is necessary that the usability and maintenance of the software be independent of the goodwill of the suppliers, or on the monopoly conditions imposed by them."

That's music to the ears of open source activists, and an alarm bell for the other side.

"We're concerned about that because California is a trend-setter for the rest of the states," says Kramer. "And we're especially worried because the proposal California has now is especially egregious: It would only allow for open source."

The federal governments of Canada and the U.S. seem to be behind the rest of the world in jumping on the open source bandwagon.

Michael Eisen, of Microsoft Canada, says, "We're certainly not seeing the momentum (here) that we're seeing, or led to believe we're seeing, in Europe and South America."

This summer, Britain announced it would look at using open source software. France and Germany recently signed contracts with open source developers. Mexico has a strong lobby for open source in government. Belgium, Peru and Argentina are considering mandating the use of open source where possible in government.

LeBlanc, who has written about the benefits of open source for the public sector, says developing countries seem eager to explore open source options. "They can use local people, local components, so especially for developing countries, open source make sense."

Besides, she adds, developing countries have a strong motive to save money.

The push for open source in the public sector goes beyond a grudge match with Microsoft. But Microsoft, particularly with its anti-trust battle with the U.S. government, is the strongest symbol of how government policies intersect with the software market. If monopolies are bad things for the economy, say the open source advocates, what better way to stave off software monopolies than encouraging open source software, which can be modified and re-sold ad infinitum?

"Open source is actually free-market economics," says McOrmond.

The advocates also want to pre-empt the very real possibility that the government will pass legislation that will limit developers' ability to work with open source software.

"If the government of Canada becomes a participant in the open source movement," says McOrmond, "then we'll have some people in government who understand the open source idea. That's the key to derailing that (anti-open source) legislative agenda."

But the main reason the activists want governments to adopt open source is this: they say it's cheaper and better -- more adaptable, more secure, more innovative, and more convenient.

Greg Geddes, the IT director for the City of Ottawa, admits to running "pretty much a Microsoft shop." He says that with a big operation, the options are limited.

"We tend to be very careful about our decisions, very conservative... We look for things that are embraced by a large percentage of the vending community."

Nonetheless, Geddes is open to exploring software options. He says putting a little variety into the software mix can help recruit young, talented software developers, and help keep them happy.

"A lot of the open source stuff tends to be where the new and hot stuff is happening," he says. "One of the advantages of those types of product is that it provides some variety and some interest for your developers and staff."

Another advantage open source holds for government developers is that it can be modified in-house, cut to fit the exact needs of the department it serves. If there's a bug, in-house programmers can fix it instead of waiting for the next version of proprietary software to hit the shelves.

Potvin helped develop the federal government's first custom open source software product a few years ago. While working at the International Development Research Centre, he helped create an application, called Online Proposal Appraisal, which helps the user to screen and manage applications or proposals.

Once the Global Development Network of the World Bank found out about OPA, it developed a second version. Now, that second version is available under an open source licence. The government, and anyone else who wants it, has access to an ever-evolving product, even though it only spent money on developing it once.

Open source software licence fees are usually much less expensive than proprietary licence fees. This leads people such as Dee-Ann LeBlanc to ask why governments would spend public money on proprietary software.

"If you really sit down and look at the expense of a large-scale Microsoft installation, the licensing costs are going to be immense," she says. "And anything a government does is going to be large-scale."

But that's exactly the reason some IT managers haven't switched to open source.

"If we put something in, we have to support everything we've got," says Geddes. "There's a tendency that the bigger the application is, your options start diminishing, whether you're in mainstream products or open source products. For us, support is a really big issue when we're thinking about a software product."

Supporting a software product means making sure all the applications and the operating system will fit together -- an issue on anyone's home computer, but a mammoth challenge for government departments with thousands of users.

It also means being able to train your staff on the software, having access to documentation about that product for when you can maintain it in-house, and having access to a wide base of reliable, certified consultants for when you can't.

Eisen of Microsoft argues that the total cost of Microsoft products is actually quite reasonable, when you consider the availability of support for Microsoft products. There is an upside to a monopoly: Everyone is familiar with it.

"Proprietary software has its plusses and minuses," says Wallace of the Ontario government. "On the plus side, you know what you're dealing with."

But since Linux-based products are becoming more widely-known, Linux consultants are easier to come by.

"Open source is taking hold," Wallace admits. "All these things are things (the Ontario government has) to look at, because it just makes sense." But Wallace isn't entirely convinced that open source is more secure than proprietary software.

"Customers of proprietary software can't determine if there are any back doors or Trojan Horses in the software, put there by a disgruntled employee," Potvin counters.

As well, with open source, if the government bought or developed a program, it could have someone read it and check for any malicious code. Of course, that assumes the government can spare someone to scour the code -- a big assumption. Still, the fact that all the code is published might dissuade hackers.

"The good thing is that everything is now wide open," says Wallace. "But the other side of the coin is that, well, everything is now wide open. So as long as we're dealing with legitimate partners and clients and so on, it's not a problem. But that's not the state of the world right now. With open source, unauthorized people can say, aha, now I can see how I can put a gap into the government's system."

Because of security and support concerns over open source software, Wallace says the Ontario plans to take it slow. It's possible the government could experiment with open source on a separate, closed system, and see how it works.

"We're not shutting the door on this. We're actually very interested because of the potential advantages. But we have to look at it very carefully if we're actually going to implement it."

Microsoft has played up the security angle in its fight against open source, although the argument that Microsoft products are themselves more secure is highly debatable. In practice, open source has never been shown to be inherently vulnerable. As Potvin points out, both the RCMP and CSIS run their Web sites on open source servers.

"A truly secure system does not depend on the source code being inaccessible," Potvin argues.

Microsoft also uses an economic argument, pointing out that the profit motive that drives its practices is integral to the North American economy. "If it weren't for the money that these companies legitimately make, we wouldn't see nearly as much innovation as we do," says Eisen.

Of course, open source does not mean free, necessarily. Companies and consultants make money off administering, supporting and presenting Linux in user-friendly formats. Potvin compares open source products to bottled water: everyone knows what's in it, but they still buy it for the assurance of quality and convenient packaging.

GOSLING member Michael Richardson scoffs at the notion that open source in government will harm innovation in the private software world. "I believe it will actually foster innovation. It will actually foster innovation in Ottawa, instead of in Redmond (Washington, home of Microsoft)."

He also adds that Microsoft's premise is questionable. "Is the purpose of government procurement to cause consultants to become rich, or is to get the best services for the public at the best possible price?"

But the Microsoft-backed Initiative for Software Choice says that's exactly what they want, too. Governments can use any kind of software they like now -- and many already use some open source. So why push for legislation or a specific procurement policy?

"If you want the broadest possible competition, you allow everybody to enter it and everybody to compete," says Robert Kramer.

Some open source advocates argue the playing field isn't level. In the 1990s, many proprietary software developers intentionally made their products work only with their other products. So if a government bought one Microsoft product, it would have a strong incentive to keep buying Microsoft products, in order to minimize compatibility problems.

Now, even Microsoft is bringing down such barriers. But governments, like everyone else, still have a hard time getting applications to play happily with each other.

Even if proprietary software does learn to get along, governments would still be at the mercy of the vendors when it comes to formats. Imagine archives created in one file format, and then imagine the software that uses that format becomes obsolete. The vendor releases a new product, and archivists have to re-enter everything, if they can. With open source, archivists have control over their software and their formats.

While governments around the world wrestle with these questions, the government of Canada seems unlikely to mandate open source in its software any time soon.

Even Potvin doesn't think anything so dramatic is necessary. But then again, he's not a very dramatic guy. Neither are the other Friday night pub-crawlers.

That doesn't mean they aren't changing the way governments do things. They are. Soon there will be probably be a GOSLING/Public Works open source portal, and more and more open source will find its way into government. But in Canada, so far, it's a quiet revolution.

© Copyright  2002 The Ottawa Citizen