Open Source

Open Source Software = Political Suicide?


The whole story surrounding Massachusetts former CIO Peter Quinn and

his decision to step down as CIO after his controversial decision to

adopt the Open Document Standard (ODF) for the state government really

bothers me. Not because I am surprised by the outcome, but because of

the precedent it sets and the chilling effect it will probably have on

decision-makers who might think about an alternative to Microsoft.


While I will freely admit I do not know all the grisly details involved

in the decision regarding the choice of ODF for the state, my research

tells me that some people felt the decision was made without enough

input from others, which resulted in a lack of buy-in among the

relevant parties.


Whether this is true or not, it will be hard to ever know the complete

truth. Personally, I'm not sure you can get 100-percent buy-in on

anything, particularly in an organization as complicated as state

government. And I'm not sure that 100-percent buy-in would have solved

Quinn's problems, because the decision he made was going to cost a

certain company a lot of money or was going have to change its software

to support a standard it didn't create or want to support.


Anytime you make public decisions that are not only costly for a major

statewide vendor, but also can be viewed as an act of defiance, you are

looking for trouble. No company, (monopoly or not) is going to take

that one sitting down, and they are going to go down fighting or take

you down first.


While I thought that Mr. Quinn's decision was bold and inspiring to

many open source proponents, it was in fact a declaration of war. Quinn

is a casualty of that war and it's quite possible that Massachusetts'

ODF standard will become another casualty, even though the state says

it will implement it as planned.


So what is the lesson from this saga? That any attempt to implement

open standards in government is political suicide? The answer is maybe;

but it depends on how you go about it.


My personal philosophy on this one is that if you are going to go up

against such a powerful force, you either need bring an equally

powerful force with you, or you prepare to fight a guerrilla war.


For instance, had Mr. Quinn said that the state is going to become an

all-Oracle state, from backend to desktop; the tale might have ended

differently because you would have money fighting money.


On the other hand, if you aren't about to swap out one huge major

software vendor for another, then in my opinion, you need to take a far

subtler approach. The first thing you do not do is blow your own horn

with a huge announcement. You need to keep quiet about it, and win the

hearts and minds of the populace without them even realizing you have

done it. The way to do it is not from the desktop, but from the back

office. Start with things the end user doesn't see or care about: DNS

servers, Web servers, and the e-mail servers. They (the end users)

continue to use the same front ends--desktop and e-mail clients that

they are used to--while you start to exchange the plumbing out from

under them. Done correctly, this can happen without anyone noticing.

And if you do it during a period in which you have paid for a volume

license of the back end stuff, no one is the wiser (particularly the

software vendor whose tools you are replacing); you will reap your

savings later when you choose not to renew.


Later, you can turn your attention to replacing the file systems and

the database servers (if you choose to go whole hog). This is a bit

trickier because applications can depend on them, but it can be done.

Mind you, this process doesn't happen overnight, but takes time and

careful planning.


Once you have liberated the back office, then the desktop is ripe for

the taking. By then you can document successful implementation and

usage over a period of time and also show the cost savings. Now, you

have ammunition and probably some fellow believers because you have

been working the steering committee all along--haven't you?


As open source continues to make headway and increase awareness through

its adoption in private sector companies, it will become easier to

stick one's neck out and make those far-reaching decisions. In the

meantime, it will take death by a thousand cuts rather than a frontal

assault should you wish to avoid political suicide and actually stick

around to see your plans come to fruition.

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