Page last updated at 09:24 GMT, Wednesday, 21 January 2009

Calls for open source government

By Maggie Shiels
Technology reporter, BBC News, Silicon Valley

Computer code
Open source software means the source code is available under license

The secret to a more secure and cost effective government is through open source technologies and products.

The claim comes from one of Silicon Valley's most respected business leaders Scott McNealy, a co-founder of Sun Microsystems.

He revealed he has been asked to prepare a paper on the subject for the new administration.

"It's intuitively obvious open source is more cost effective and productive than proprietary software," he said.

"Open source does not require you to pay a penny to Microsoft or IBM or Oracle or any proprietary vendor any money."


Mr McNealy told the BBC he wants to ensure the government does not get "locked in" to one specific vendor or company.

"The government ought to mandate open source products based on open source reference implementations to improve security, get higher quality software, lower costs, higher reliability - all the benefits that come with open software.

Sun Microsystems' Java programming language is an open source product used in billions of devices such as mobile phones and computers. Instead of charging for a copyrighted program, by and large any open source product is publicly available, is licensed under royalty free terms for unrestricted use and has an open code for all to see, copy and adapt for free.

The idea behind this is that the thinking of many will improve a product by leaps and bounds and keep it relevant.

A report by global technology research house XMG said companies "were exploring the advantages of open source software" due to the "prohibitive" cost of proprietary products.

"Colossal expense"

President Obama has said he is prepared to go through the budget "line by line" to cut wasteful spending, but has so far failed to give any specifics of how that would be done.

The Open Source Initiative, or OSI, is fully supportive of Mr McNealy's efforts which both believe is one of the main solutions the new President cannot afford to ignore.

Scott McNealy
Mr McNealy says the benefits of open source products can't be ignored

"Scott is absolutely correct about the benefits which have been demonstrated time and again," said OSI president Michael Tiemann.

"It's an accident of history that proprietary standards became so entrenched so early and it's been a colossal expense for government."

Mr Tiemann said while some departments already use open source technologies, overall it has been estimated that the global loss due to proprietary software is "in excess of $1 trillion a year."

He claimed that the conservative cost for the US is from " $400bn (290bn) and upwards."

"A move to open source will lower costs and increase capability," said Mr Tiemann who is also the vice-president of Red Hat, the world's leading open source technology solutions provider.

"This is the kind of change we need if we are ever going to see the government reform its operational capabilities and cost basis. If they fail to do this, it's one more stick in the mud. The capital markets are telling us today we can no longer afford much more status quo," he stated.

The Open Solutions Alliance has said the present economic downturn "will lead to an increase in adoption of open solutions due to their flexibility, scalability and value."

Meanwhile research firm Gartner has warned that the benefits of open source might not deliver unless properly managed.

"Do not expect to automatically save money with open source software, or OSS, or any technology without effective financial management," said analyst Mark Driver.

Microsoft and Oracle have opened up some of their software and protocols to developers.

"Open source President"

So just how receptive will the 44th President will be to the idea of a implementing the workings of a new government around open standards?

Barack Obama and George W Bush, 20 Jan
Mr Obama has promised an open and transparent government

"The concept of open source is going to become an undercurrent to almost everything this administration does," declared the OSI's Michael Tiemann.

"The American concept of democracy is not just of the people and by the people but with the people."

He said we have already seen a commitment to this open philosophy throughout President Obama's election campaign.

"I think what we will see now is a maturation in America and around the world of an understanding of the open source model."

Errol Louis of the New York Daily News seemed to agree.

He described Mr Obama as "our first open source President, a leader willing to let anybody and everybody figure out how, when and where they want to get involved."

He noted that the strategy popularised by computer software companies in giving away software to get others to improve on it has now been applied to politics.

Indeed the new website is said to be a portal for "interactive government" and "open source democracy."


Mr McNealy said a new cabinet post of chief information officer (CIO) was necessary to drive this fundamental root and branch change.

Java logo
Java, which went open source in 2006, is on 6 billion devices

He added that the CIO should "have veto power, the right to eliminate any hardware, software or networking product that touches the federal network.

"He or she would have real power, real oversight and employ real consequences for folk that don't realign with the architecture. It's what every business does that the government doesn't," he concluded.

The OSI's Mr Tiemann disagreed and said that a CIO post "would be a waste of an executive slot."

"Knowing what I know about the structure and nature of the federal government, I can't believe there is much value to having a CIO who would have to implement across the departments who find it hard to co-operate regardless of the technical hurdles.

" A CIO would just not be a productive post over the next four years," stated Mr Tiemann.

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