foobar on computers, software and the rest of the world

Why open source has a hard time in government

, posted: 29-Aug-2008 09:14

I wrote some time ago that open source should be the default decision for any IT manager, director and even individual. Proprietary software - due to its many disadvantages - should only be considered under exceptional circumstances and with a very good reason.

Yet, too often this is not the case. Purchasing managers far and wide need to be convinced that open source might be a good alternative, while for some reason still gravitating to proprietary software as a default.

The same is the case with the government of the Canadian province Quebec, which has now been sued for not considering open source alternatives, which could have saved their tax payers a lot of money.

This bit of news kicked of a discussion on Slashdot, where one of the commenters (donaldm) summed up quite nicely why open source has such a hard time in many government places that don't have a specific open source mandate. It's a good summary, so I am going to just quote it:
In Australia we have a taxation year between 1st July to the 30th June and at the beginning of the tax year most Government departments receive a budget allocation. It would be a very courageous IT manager that could go to his/her department head and say we can slash our budget by upto say 60% by choosing open software such as Open Office and the savings could be spent on upgrading the IT infrastructure.

What normally happens in the above scenario is the upgrade never happens because there are few people in authority that will sanction this since they perceive that the old hardware is good enough because you normally can extend the life of the current equipment with open software and the IT managers budget is slashed. Of course when the time comes to replace the ageing equipment the IT manger is accused of overspending.

Most IT managers are well aware (or should be aware) of this double standard and to keep their jobs and credibility take the easy way and buy Microsoft products since all senior department heads know about Microsoft and appear quite amenable to a three or four year hardware and possibly software update cycle even though in the long term it is much more expensive, however this can be easily and consistently budgeted for with only an acceptable increase per year.

Actually it is very easy for IT department heads to justify proprietary software over open software since they only have to point to many Microsoft and so called unbiased web sites that show Microsoft software has a much better Total Cost of Ownership than open software. The "How to Lie with Statistics" technique.

Do I think this is right? I don't but that is Government business politics for you.

Yes, he's probably right on the money with that one. Combine that with the unwillingness to learn new things (users and IT alike) and you have the cards stacked against open source in government. It will take time and a lot of work to break through this.

Other related posts:
Iceland's public administration and schools moving towards open source
Astonishing example of what FOSS software is up against: Teacher confiscates Linux CDs
xfmedia player for Ubuntu - bye bye Audacious

Comment by Brett Roberts, Microsoft NZ, on 29-Aug-2008 13:40

I find it ironic to see somebody who regularly espouses the concept of "freedom" attempting to force their technology opinion onto IT managers, directors and individuals. Surely "freedom" extends to the concept of allowing those people to choose what works for them. Or is "freedom" the point at which everybody thinks the same way as you do ?

But I digress...

Your view of government understanding, testing and adoption of open source-based solutions doesn't gel with mine at all. I know of many NZ government agencies who are, for example, using OSS CMS systems. ODF is included in the e-GIF and Linux servers aren't exactly unheard of.

My personal view (and that of my employer) is that choice is a good thing and that technology choices (there's that word again) should be made on the basis of suitability for purpose. For the record "cheapest" is not always "best" and the good news is that 99.9% of the IT people I have come across in my travels understand that. To push an analogy to within an inch of its life... it's just like how we don't all drive around in the cheapest car money can buy. Are you suggesting that Ladas should be the "default decision" for all car buyers ? For the record, I drive a Mazda.

My respectful suggestion would be for you to spend less time cutting and pasting commentary from Slashdot and get to Wellington and meet with IT people there over a coffee or three. I don't believe there's any single reason that open source adoption doesn't meet with your expectations but I am not convinced that telling people that it should be "your way or the highway" is the way to build relations, respect and trust in that sector. I've found the vast majority of government IT people to be approachable and willing to engage in debate on such things and I'm pretty sure they could paint a far clearer picture for you if you'd take the time to listen to them.

Just my $0.02 worth

Author's note by foobar, on 29-Aug-2008 14:01

@Brett Roberts: You seem to overestimate my powers: I am not forcing anything on anyone. Please point me to a single place in my blog where I am forcing anything. And while we are at it: Where have I ever said: My way or the highway"?

Your comparison to the cars doesn't work, because when I talk about 'free' I don't talk about the cost at all. Basic 'free software' definition. Take a look here to learn more. It just happens to be so that by adopting open source solutions you likely will save some money. But that's not necessarily so. There are significant additional advantages to open source or free software, which make them very attractive choices.

It may be your personal view that choice is a good thing, but I can't help but think that Microsoft only likes choice if the choice leads to more money for Microsoft. That's not because Microsoft is bad, it's simply because they are a publicly traded company and thus their only purpose in life is to increase shareholder value.

Comment by Brett Roberts, Microsoft NZ, on 29-Aug-2008 14:36

I guess it's all a matter of interpretation. I interpret comments such as "Proprietary software - due to its many disadvantages - should only be considered under exceptional circumstances and with a very good reason" as being forcing your opinion onto others. Obviously you see it a different way. C'est la vie.

The car analogy wasn't about "free" at all (and rest assured I get the "free" thing). It was in relation to the "saving taxpayers a lot of money" point via which, unless I am mistaken, you were referencing your view that OSS software is somehow automagically less expensive than proprietary software. If that is an incorrect assumption then I apologise. If I am correct however I for one am grateful that the people who spend my tax dollars on IT stuff think a little more deeply than that.

Microsoft is a commercial software company which, like every other public compnay, has a responsibility to provide a return to its shareholders (just like Oracle, Sun, IBM, Novell, RedHat, SAP, Xero, Jade, Peace...). The only way we can provide that return to shareholders is by providing products and services which customers want to buy. That is, however, *not* our only purpose in life (and I'm sure the same applies to those other companies too).

Comment by Debianero, on 30-Aug-2008 06:39

Brett Roberts said: 'The only way we can provide that return to shareholders is by providing products and services which customers want to buy.'

Want to buy... (smile...)

The problem is that most of times customers don't want to buy a Microsoft product but they have to.

Everybody knows Microsoft 'commercial practices' (as in Mob) and how Microsoft broke software standards looking for jailed customers.

Comment by BobW, on 30-Aug-2008 08:25

You say that proprietary software has many disadvantages and should only be considered under exceptional circumstances and with a very good reason.

Fair enough.  But there are very good reasons why people choose to use non-free software.  Many of those reasons relate to what is known as network economics, or the network effect.

My employer, for example, uses Microsoft Office.  Why?  Because all of our clients use Office, and exchanging files could be problematic if we used different software.  Sure, Open Office tries to be compatible with Microsoft Office - but the reality is that different software will always have compatibility issues.  In a business environment, the direct and indirect costs of software hassles far outweigh the relatively small cost of the software.

For similar reasons I brought Microsoft Office for home.  The ability to easily exchange files between work and home is significant.  More important is the fact that I know how to use Microsoft Office, so there is no learning curve to use it at home.  I value my time, so the choice of using Microsoft Office is an obvious one.

As an aside, I have actually downloaded Open Office and tried to use it.  The first file I opened, a spreadsheet, failed because it contained a VBA macro that Open Office didn't understand.  The second file, a Word document, also failed because Open Office messed up parts of the formatting - not in a major way, but enough to be annoying.  So, Open Office was uninstalled and won't be back until the economics change - which I don't expect to be anytime soon.

Comment by Brett Roberts, Microsoft NZ, on 30-Aug-2008 13:55


I have been with Microsoft for almost 11 years and have spent a lot of time bumping into, talking to, competing against (and occasionally losing to) people from the OSS community. When it comes to the "talking to" part I find they tend to come from one of two camps:

- those who are interested in engaging in an intelligent debate and can see both sides of the story

- those whose aren't capable of doing so and therefore need to resort to emotive burble ("Mob" being a good example)

I've learned a lot more from the former than I have the latter (and I suspect the reverse may apply). Thanks for your input.

Comment by timestyles, on 31-Aug-2008 13:19

If you are comparing the quality of open source vs closed source, I have found that the quality of closed source to be better, obviously if it's not they will not get any customers.

I believe everything finds its natural balance. A word processor - is just a word processor. It's relatively static, 10 years of evolution really doesn't change things. So Open office will eventually be equal to MS Office in quality, although it's anyones guess as to when that happens. Similarly to a spreadsheet (excepting plug-ins, which often do change).

Other types of software do change, or have such a long growth curve due to being very complex, or are highly specialised (electronic circuit simulation, mathematics software, as per my comment a few months back) that there will never be a OSS equivalent until computers start writing code. By the way, Spice, which was one of the earliest Open Source software, was effectively made obsolete due to closed source competitors taking their ideas and commercialising them. (see ) so things can go in the other direction too.

I recently found out that all my MS Works files from ages ago were not able to be opened properly in the latest version of Office. So the answer is to just to install an old version of Works and save as rtf. If Works had been open source I wouldn't have been able to alter the source code, so I would have just done the same thing.

Comment by Harry, on 31-Aug-2008 21:33

The cost of Office is hardly a major cost for an IT department, the people costs are.  You're not going to get much from changing, plus all of the work to do to integrate it with products that rely on certain office functions being present, such critical software as SAP.  The cost of integrating, testing and working through all of the issues is just not work the time.  Better to focus on real value from OSS such as Linux and consolidated servers using VMWare. 

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New Zealand

  • Who I am: Software developer and consultant.
  • What I do: System level programming, Linux/Unix. C, C++, Java, Python, and a long time ago even Assembler.
  • What I like: I'm a big fan of free and open source software. I'm Windows-free, running Ubuntu on my laptop. To a somewhat lesser degree, I also follow the SaaS industry.
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