Archived entries for proprietary

New Year and Ministry of Health

First of all, happy New Year and apologies from all PTS bloggers for lack of activity. I know on my part it is not because I don’t have things to write about it is because there is so much to write about. We had some interesting stuff happening on the FOSS front on 2009 and I think 2010 is going to be quite year. In fact, I don’t think I have felt so positive about the understanding and interest in FOSS for a very long time.

But that is for other posts.

Labour’s ITC spokesperson, Clare Curran, pointed to a pre-Christmas press release by the Ministry of Health claiming “health dollars” (whatever they are) have been saved in their shiny new three year deal with Microsoft. The following comments should be taken in some context. It is obvious that following the unexpected failure of central Government to negotiate a deal with MS (and at the same time to properly explore alternatives) it is inevitable that individual agencies arrive at their own arrangements. They also have had very little time to do this, so late in the day was it that the central Government negotiations collapsed. This is not a great negotiating position for taxpayer representatives to be in and my sympathies are definitely with that agency. That said…

The issues with this deal are:

  1. As Clare points out, the MoH needs to produce some facts and figures before making any claims of savings;
  2. Did this procurement go to tender (note, this is *not* a case of SSC negotiating a price that agencies may choose to take up but an actual procurement);
  3. Has the MoH learned the lessons of the past?

Point 3 needs some expansion. As a result of a Windows Virus infection last year we learned that the MoH was tied to IE5 due to legacy applications. Presumably they are also tied to Windows and other software that relates to IE5. The lesson is this, make sure that as applications are replaced and procured they have no proprietary tie ins. Make sure that they are not hooked into closed standards or environments that reduce future choices, increase vendor lock-in and end up wasting millions in “health dollars” in the future.

This policy and strategy needs to be given a public airing so that taxpayers and recipients of health services can be confident that our future investments in health IT return value to stakeholders rather than monopolistic multi-nationals.

Free Software and the Computer Society Code of Ethics

The New Zealand Computer Society has recently been encouraging its members to apply for professional certification.  In working through the application process, I found myself reflecting on the Society’s Code of Ethics and its relationship to IT professionalism. In my view, being an IT professional requires me to put the code of ethics at the forefront of everything I do. A professional acts ethically not only when it’s easy to do so, but also when it’s hard — especially when it’s hard.

I have been reflecting on the following question:

When choosing software, is it ethical to choose a proprietary solution, if a free alternative is available?

A person could take one of 3 positions.

  1. The question is not applicable. Many people evaluate and choose software for purely pragmatic reasons, without considering the ethical dimension. For example, SSC says ”NZ Government Agencies … should choose based on cost, functionality, interoperability, and security.” Nothing about ethics there.
  2. No. Any software which takes away the users’ freedom is by definition unethical. Hence, to recommend proprietary software when a free alternative exists is unprofessional. As IT professionals, we have a duty to advise decision-makers about the ethical dimensions of their decisions. Ethics come first.
  3. Yes. If the convenience of the proprietary solution is more important than the users’ freedom, then loss of freedom is the price we choose to pay for greater convenience. It’s OK for ethics to come second.

What would be the Computer Society’s view on this ethical dilemma, I wonder?

Should we start referring to “ethical software” (which would also side-step the eternal debate about free versus open source)?

Freely Supported

One justification that companies often use for purchasing proprietary software is the availability of support. I was recently reminded of this when a project that I work on encountered a bug in the PostgreSQL database server. A couple of the developers worked on creating a minimal test case to exercise the bug, submitted it to the bugs mailing list, and waited.

They didn’t have to wait long. The next morning, the bug report had been examined and confirmed by Tom Lane, one of the lead developers for the PostgreSQL project, and a conversation had developed discussing the implications and approaches to fixing the problem. This also highlighted a solution: the functionality at fault could be disabled with a configuration setting until the problem is fixed.

How many commercial software companies could you hope to receive a similar incident response from? How many of them would provide that service at the same cost that the PostgreSQL project charged (that is, nothing at all)? I suspect that the answer is: not many, if any.

This was a well formatted bug report made by an active member of the PostgreSQL community, which may have had some influence upon its treatment, but would a similarly well formatted bug report sent to a company gain such a rapid response? Certainly you would be unlikely to receive anything like Tom Lane’s frank discussion of the cause.

This case impressed me because it directly affected the project that I work on, but it also prompted me to do a little research on support. Many others have investigated this before and in more depth, but with similar findings.

Back in 2007, Matt Asay, a regular columnist on open source issues for cnet news, reported the results of research into resolution of software problems in open source and commercial projects concluding that good open source projects are likely to be faster to resolve problems than good proprietary solutions.  In a March blog posting, software developer Davy Brion discussed at length the weakness of choosing software based simply on a perception of available support. And in an April blog posting on, system administrator Shane Shields also compared open source and proprietary support, mentioning the lengths that open source developers will sometimes go to to fix your problems.

Good software support is often more a function of the community of users and developers, than the company or group behind the development. Savvy companies are catching on to this by sponsoring or promoting community support sites for their products and by taking part in community forums. For free and open source projects on the other hand, community involvement is their default mode of operation. Some projects are clearly better than others and this is also true in the commercial world. Careful software selection is required, but where support is concerned you shouldn’t assume that you get what you pay for.

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