Government Support Could Spell Big Year for Open Source
Open source advocates have plenty of reasons to believe that 2009 could be a watershed year. The movement is getting increased support from governments worldwide, and officials are embracing the open strategy in more than one sense of the term—adopting open standards that support interoperability between software products, and licensing open source software that's available at low or even no cost in the most prominent examples.
In the first month of 2009, governments in Vietnam, Russia, France and the US have taken varied steps to promote or adopt open source technology. These steps follow a report late in 2008 from the Open Document Format Alliance, which identified 16 countries that have open source policies. It's a trend that could help make open source software a standard for many types of business applications, from operating systems to word processors.
"Governments exert a great deal of influence on the market," said ODF Alliance managing director Marino Marcich. "They represent roughly 30 percent of all IT purchases, and can exert a great deal of influence on the private sector."
Document formats, currently dominated by the binary approach that Microsoft popularized in its Office suite, are on a clear path to openness, but not without a struggle akin to the Blu-ray versus HD DVD war. ODF was the first XML-based document format and is gaining traction among governments—Germany, for example, recently declared that ODF would be its default format by 2010. However, Microsoft is working hard to promote its own open format, Office Open XML (OOXML), which could benefit from the company's standing in the corporate world.
A Forrester Research report in December showed that most companies rely on Microsoft Word out of habit, but the report also indicated that some companies are considering other options. The popularity of Google Docs and OpenOffice.org, which use ODF as a default, prompted Microsoft to add support for the competing format in its applications beginning this year. "Microsoft is committed to interoperability, transparency, and user choice,"
Microsoft representative Tom Daemon said. "Customers—including government customers—have told us their data needs cannot be addressed by a one-format-fits-all approach because everyone wants to use their data in slightly different ways. Multiple standards can foster a healthy, competitive industry and evidence of coexistence already exists in the marketplace." A Gartner report available on Microsoft's Web site concluded that both open formats must evolve to win the battle, but neither has an edge in interoperability and both fall short in some features, such as macros. "Neither ODF nor OOXML will ensure that documents created in one application will have 100 percent fidelity when opened in another application," Gartner said in the report.
Nevertheless, the ODF Alliance says that growing government adoption will help ODF gain a foothold as the top format. "Governments can be assured that they will have access to important documents and records many years and decades from now with no worries that their software provider will discontinue support for the format," Marcich said.
Some countries have taken steps recently to promote other aspects of open source, such as Linux. The New York Times reported in late January that the French National Assembly, which changed its operations to Ubuntu in 2006, is now encouraging other European Union members to take advantage of the low cost to use the operating system. "We're quite happy because it's all working very well now," assembly vice president Rudy Salles told the Times. "We see that many countries are interested in our experience, and so we'll try to help the other parliaments around the world."
Russia is apparently trying a different tactic, reportedly developing a customized national operating system likely to be based on Linux. According to Russia Today, the country is already testing Linux as a replacement for Windows in its schools.
Vietnam announced in January that it would fully immerse itself in open source by 2010, completing a five-year foray into open technology. Late in 2008, the communist country announced that it would join Asianux, an open source development organization that also includes China, Japan, and the Korean market. Shortly afterwards, the Vietnamese government mandated that all its operations would switch entirely to open source software, including OpenOffice, Firefox, and Thunderbird.
In the United States, only a few government entities have instituted open source policies, led by the state of Massachusetts and the federal Web site. Obama reportedly has taken the first step to adopt an open source strategy by enlisting Sun Microsystems cofounder Scott McNealy to prepare a report.
McNealy was labeled by some as an odd choice because of his past comments dismissing Linux as a cost-saving option, but said in a BBC interview that the benefits of getting rid of proprietary software are "intuitively obvious." "The government ought to mandate open source products based on open source reference implementations to improve security, get higher quality software, lower costs, [and] higher reliability—all the benefits that come with open software," McNealy said.