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Open source for U.S. government: Is there a downside?

It is rumored that the U.S. government might be considering the adoption of open source to replace costly proprietary software. Is this a good idea? Jack Wallen considers this and finds a possible argument against it.

Recently I read that president Obama is considering adopting open source software for the US government. According to Scott McNealey (co-founder of Sun Microsystems), he was asked to prepare a document on the cost-effectiveness of using open source in the government. And why not? It makes perfect sense. Given our current economic climate, why should the government be paying for software that it can get for free?

Let's put this into perspective. Michael Teirmann (Vice President of Red Hat and head of the Open Source Initiative) claims that global proprietary software usage costs around $1 trillion dollars yearly. This figure claims to only cover software that can be replaced by an open source alternative.

In trolling around for a dollar figure spent by the U.S. Government on operating systems, I came across a figure for the year 2004. That figure - 12 billion dollars. Of that 12 billion, 7.2 million will go to server, mainframe, and backup solutions, and the rest will go to desktops.

That was 2004. The cost of operating systems has risen. The cost of government spending has risen. It is now 2009 and the lure of spending 12 billion dollars less in the government is a change I would guess most American citizens would welcome. But is there a downside to this? Amid all the glowing and celebrating open source pundits (like myself) are doing, are we missing any possible downside?

I want to preface this by saying I welcome the government migrating to open source. With open arms, I welcome it. I think the money saved by migrating 100% to open source software would give the U.S. government some much needed breathing room (at least a little breathing room).

But that downside. Yeah. Retail spending is down. Across the board it seems. Imagine what would happen if Microsoft lost a staggering contract like the government contract. Is it possible when a company loses an income to the tune of billions of dollars, it would react by placing the burden of that loss on the consumers? We've seen it before countless times. So if the government pulls out of Microsoft's' bankroll, would Microsoft then raise the price of their already overpriced operating systems and office suites?

I would like to think the buck wouldn't be passed on. But I have a feeling it would. So the question then becomes: If Microsoft would pass on the buck to the consumers, should the government migrate to open source?

In my honest opinion, I think this is just what is needed...responsible spending. We've all heard the story about how the government was spending thousands of dollars on bolts and toilet lids. We've also heard of how many government offices are using out of date software (because their departments couldn't afford updates). Adopting open source software solves so many problems on so many levels. But then again it comes back around to "are we willing to risk the price hike from MS should this occur?"

I don't think we'll ever have to worry about MS going under. But maybe this sort of landslide is just what that company needs for a final wake-up call. If the U.S. government adopts open source software and saves billions of dollars, maybe the average citizen would open their eyes and realize they too could save money using open source software. For open source developers this is a win-win situation. I, for one, would welcome the change.

It looks like responsibility might be sweeping the nation. Hopefully this new way of thinking will continue so open source can do its part in helping to revive the sagging global economy. Personally I think it is worth the risk of higher prices from Microsoft. From my perspective (should this happen) it would only be Microsoft shooting themselves in their only remaining foot.

But what do you think?

About

Jack Wallen is an award-winning writer for TechRepublic and Linux.com. He’s an avid promoter of open source and the voice of The Android Expert. For more news about Jack Wallen, visit his website getjackd.net.

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