commentary The proprietary/open source dilemma confronts governments and businesses everywhere—it's only a matter of scale.
At a debate on the future of Australia's ICT industry, during a fringe event to the recent ALP Conference in Sydney, NSW Minister for Commerce John Della Bosca surprised the delegates with his comments that his government was examining open source software (OSS) alternatives and would consider moving away from proprietary software lock-ins.
He admitted that his government had been "dumb buyers of IT for a long time" and wanted to become better buyers, users, and sellers of information and IT.
In my view—and I said so at the event—our governments at all levels should be looking at all alternatives and considering OSS options as they have the potential to create local ICT jobs and reduce the ICT trade deficit of $14.4 billion.
Unemployment in our sector runs at more than 75 percent above the national average, and given the strength of our OSS community, a purchasing process ought to consider all the options and OSS should not be ignored.
I'm not advocating an overnight switch away from proprietary applications for government or business; there has to be, however, a more structured examination of the adoption of OSS for both the public and private sectors and a thorough analysis of the economic benefits it offers in each circumstance.
OSS is not freeware in the get-it-for-nothing category; it has a cost. But it's an emerging technology which will evolve to equality with licensed, proprietary software by the end of this decade because it offers new freedoms for its adopters.
The German federal government last year went some of the way towards OSS by entering into an arrangement with IBM to supply hardware for public sector groups with SuSE Linux installed. More than 500 agencies have taken up the deal, with one city, Schwabisch Hall, switching over completely to OSS to reduce licence costs which could be ploughed back into infrastructure development.
And in recent weeks its Federal Finance Office has implemented what IBM is calling one of the largest Linux-based mainframe deployments in Europe, to manage, among other things, the payment of all public sector employees and the taxation of German citizens with taxable income abroad.
Munich switched its 14,000 desktop units to OSS and the trend is reflected elsewhere in Belgium, Spain, and Finland—none exactly scratching for survival and certainly not labouring under a trade deficit like Australia's, 50 percent of which is generated by ICT imports.
In Asia, there are more subtle persuasions in play: a reluctance to be shackled to Western vendor monopolies has brought Japan, China, and South Korea together to modify OSS offerings to meet local requirements.
The Israeli Government will continue to use its installed Microsoft products but will no longer upgrade them, instead seeking to encourage local developers to create OSS solutions to create jobs and encourage wider home PC and Internet use.
There is a host of tested OSS offerings available: Apache Web Server, Mozilla, and MySQL are all considered safe, robust, and pervasive—and the OSS community of developers who voluntarily contributed to these qualities are still out there, driving their passion for excellence.
CIOs know how difficult and prohibitively expensive it can be to move between vendors, even though it can be almost as difficult to stay with those they have chosen. (A Gartner survey of 600 companies that bought CRM software showed more than 40 percent had licensed software unused but still racking up licence and support fees.)
But broadening the technology base can give those charged with creating ROI on software purchases an opportunity to improve their negotiating position next time around.
And as Minister Della Bosca has indicated, it's on the agenda.
Edward Mandla is National President of the Australian Computer Society (ACS). The ACS attracts a membership (over 16,000) from all levels of the IT industry and provides a wide range of services. The Society can be contacted on 02 9299 3666, or email firstname.lastname@example.org. Visit this page for other ACS articles published by ZDNet Australia.
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