Archived entries for public sector remix

Free as in Free Market

In his thoughtful post, The free software way, Richard Fontana (open source licensing and patent counsel at Red Hat) highlights the importance of the bundle of legal rights that make software “free as in freedom”. These are the broad freedoms that users have to view the source, copy, modify and redistribute the software. The four freedoms, embodied in licences such as the GPL, are the foundation on which our rights as users rest. He points out that the term “Open Source” fails to capture the central idea of this bundle of rights.

But are these rights enough?

The Public Sector Remix project, aimed at bringing contestability back to the public sector desktop, highlighted the importance of what I have come to think of as “the fifth freedom”—it’s not enough for the software to be free, the documentation must be free too. On the desktop, this means adopting not just a free software stack, it means adopting open standards in general and ODF in particular.

It is encouraging to read that Danish state administrations will adopt ODF and let’s hope New Zealand follows their lead sooner rather than later.

But why would a business user care about software freedom? For customers, free-as-in-free-speech software delivers free-as-in-free-market software. As a consequence of the 4 software freedoms, customers get 4 business freedoms:

  1. Choice: freedom to choose software that does not dictate a particular vendor or require a particular infrastructure
  2. Independence: freedom from lock-in or vendor capture so that we can enter and exit technologies based on business needs
  3. Flexibility: freedom of action so that choices made today don’t limit our choices tomorrow or require others to make the same choices we have made
  4. Control: freedom to control the software and use or modify it as we see fit, and to collaborate or share with others

Proprietary software is designed to take away the 4 business freedoms. Buyers considering proprietary alternatives to free software need to be sure that any short term benefits exceed the long term costs.

Bringing contestability back to the public sector desktop

For the last few months, the Open Source Society has been facilitating a project called the Public Sector Remix. This involves a number of public sector agencies investigating use of a free software stack on the desktop and understanding the barriers preventing its more widespread adoption. As the project has run out of money, my involvement is at an end, so it’s a good time to reflect on what the project has achieved so far.

The biggest challenge is overcoming inertia—the tendency to keep going in the same direction, because it’s the path of least resistance. Let’s be clear, there are no logical reasons to avoid free software on the desktop:

  • modern FOSS stacks, such as Ubuntu and Novell SLED, are simply stunning and more than capable of meeting business requirements
  • power users have the most to gain from the increased capabilities available from a FOSS desktop; e.g., try doing this with Microsoft Word (warning: PDF)
  • vendors offering implementation, training and support services around FOSS are capable, passionate and committed (I’ll have more to say on vendor capability later)

Like any investment, it comes down to the business case and asking the right questions about how the investment will:

  1. increase or decrease the cost of exiting from current desktop arrangements (if you are in a hole and want to get out, the first thing to do is stop digging)
  2. increase or decrease our ability to collaborate and exchange information with others, who may use different desktop technologies (will we be more open, or less open?)
  3. increase or decrease our ability to support and manage a diverse desktop software environment (will we have more choice, or less choice?)

If I were a public sector CIO, I would be asking my managers, “What are we doing to bring contestability back to the desktop?” The agencies participating in the Public Sector Remix project have a clear view of their business objectives and the benefits they expect to achieve. They want to adopt technology that can enable business, without strings attached, and discard technology painlessly if the returns are no longer justifiable.

The project has given me many thought-provoking moments, of which the most interesting has been the vexed question of ideology. Some people who consider themselves pragmatists say those who advocate free/libre or open source software are putting ideology first (forgetting that pragmatism is itself an ideology). They say the “correct” position for a manager is to be “impartial”. Linus Torvalds refutes this best:

I think Open Source is the right thing to do in the same way I believe science is better than alchemy.

To put this another way, taking an “impartial” position is like saying that intelligent design should be taught alongside evolution. I prefer to think that in the long run, more and more people will adopt a “free software first” policy—that we will choose FOSS on the basis of its additional inherent flexibility and freedoms.

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