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The Economic Times
Should governments use open source software?
TUESDAY, NOVEMBER 26, 2002 01:28:06
The Linux versus Microsoft tussle over open-source software as against
proprietary software has all the romance of a David versus Goliath battle.
What is the reality? We present three views, two from industry and one from
Javed Tapia, Director, Red Hat, India
Linux is an operating system, much like Microsoft Windows, Solaris or MacOS
X. What sets Linux apart from most other operating systems is that it is an
open source. This is generally taken to mean simply 'free'.
What this actually is much more than that and in practice means that the
source code is available to all for modification, customisation, and
The use of Linux lowers the total cost of IT very significantly. The first
advantage is the upfront price. A single fully supported package would cost
significantly less than any proprietary alternatives.
Secondly, since Linux is under a general public licensing model it can be
installed on many computers without any restrictions. Thirdly, a typical
Linux CD contains not only the operating system, but a large variety of
other software products that can be installed if needed.
Thus, without buying or downloading anything else, the user already has
simple office suite, all the software needed for internet access, advanced
networking capabilities, and so on.
Fourthly, a major argument against the implementation of proprietary
software in the government sector is the dependency on proprietary software
Even in an open tender acquisition system, this requirement for
compatibility with proprietary standards makes the system biased towards
specific software vendors, perpetuating a dependency.
This dependency is perpetuated due to two reasons: first of all software
owners have to upgrade the software, even if there is no internal reason or
interest in doing so. Otherwise they risk facing a situation where their
programs are not capable of process documents and files, created by newer
versions of the same product.
The second coercion to upgrade evolving from this dependency situation is
the ending of support for 'older' versions. This situation thus has major
consequences for the cost side of IT management.
Through the passage of time, the proprietary software vendor does not have
to fear competition, since the client has to take its product irrespective
of any choice.
A typical, at least de facto, monopoly evolves in which the vendor dictates
prices, conditions and quality. Open source provide liberation from such a
situation as it offers no proprietary lock-in to any one vendor.
Fifthly, apart from the cost advantage, in a large installation such as
government ministry or department, administration of all the computers in
all locations can be a logistical nightmare. Linux provides many features
that can make this administration much easier. Linux is a multi-user system
which means that each file belongs to a specific user, and one user cannot
alter another user's files unless latter assigns appropriate permissions.
Linux has a number of features that make its use on a network much more
Examples include a built-in firewall, the ability to allow certain services
(e.g., file sharing) to be accessible only from within an internal network,
software to detect attempted hacking, encrypted protocols for remote
administration, file transfer, and so on.
An important selling point of Linux is its stability. Barring hardware
malfunctions, Linux is highly stable. Operating system crashes are almost
Proof of this being that today large enterprises and government bodies are
adopting Linux in a big way for their mission-critical applications. For
instance NASA and the ESA are using a customised version of Linux in a
number of highly-sensitive space missions.
While it is possible to download Linux for free, make copies of the
downloads and distribute them freely, this option includes no support from
the supplier, although one can always make use of peer support groups and
other self-proclaimed gurus.
To benefit from professional telephone or email support from the suppliers
like Red Hat, one has to buy the operating system. This option normally
includes more software than the free version, printed manuals, a number of
days of support and software provided ready on CDs.
Finally, the situation after the migration to open source software will lead
to lower life-cycle costs. Service, support and maintenance can now be
contracted out to a range of suppliers, being placed in the competitive
environment of a functioning marketplace.
The money saved in the service-oriented model of open source is then also
normally spent within the economy or the governmental organisation. Unlike
proprietary software situations where they are paid out as pure licence fees
to large monopolistic multinational organisations.
The cost of the service oriented model of open source has a positive fallout
on the domestic economy through the generation of local employment, spurring
of local investment and ensuring local technological upgradation.
Sanjiv Mathur, Head of marketing, Microsoft, India:
To begin with let me first clarify the term 'Free software.' The word
here specifically means what you can do with the software, not the price.
While you can obtain the basic software free, it is distributed and sold for
a charge by companies who develop applications on it.
As a result, the pricing structure becomes very similar to commercial
software as companies promoting free software charge for initial
installation, support, training, etc.
Though the price debate is still under the microscope, the total cost of
ownership underscores the fact that when you invest in software or hardware,
there are a number of hidden costs that come into being. In the commercial
and free software debate this element becomes of critical value as studies
reveal that TCO of free software is quite high.
Microsoft believes in the overall benefit of the software ecosystem -- one
that recognises the roles of government, education, private industry and end
users to develop a healthy interaction that advances the public knowledge
base, protects IP rights, furthers innovation and spurs further growth.
Our primary concern is not with open source as a whole, but with the GNU
General Public License.
Its role in discouraging the development of commercial software threatens to
undermine intellectual property, stifle innovation, and limit
entrepreneurism while reducing choice in the market.
The best catalyst for software innovation and industry growth is the market
place, supported by a strong regime for intellectual property protection. If
an organisation is looking at moving over to free software, it is attracted
by the short term benefits where the initial investment may be less than
what they would need to do for commercial software.
However taking into account the longer term implications; they definitely
need to think of the overall value proposition that a platform offers
vis-a-vis the other.
They need to evaluate the basic acquisitions costs of free software
vis-a-vis the long term costs which include integration costs between
various components, backwards compatibility costs, collaboration with the
partner community, trained manpower.
These costs are absorbed by the commercial software companies and the value
is passed onto the customer. Moreover, once free software is installed, it
also becomes a source of elevated security vulnerabilities for IT buyers,
because the source code is freely available: no one person is responsible
Microsoft's investments in e-governance in particular go back several years,
and we were amongst the first IT companies to strike alliances with the
central and state governments.
Today, we have MoUs with 18 state governments in India, and are doing
pioneering work in developing e-governance applications and solutions. Some
results of our successful partnerships include the Gyaandoot Project with
the government of Madhya Pradesh, the Bhoomi Project in Karnataka and work
with the Treasuries department of the government of Haryana.
We at Microsoft believe that a healthy software ecosystem is one built on
choice with government agencies and all entities having the ability to
select which software model fits their needs.
We believe that an open market approach where software products compete on
their technical merits is the best model for the long-term growth of the
software industries in all countries.
Software companies make heavy investments in R&D and if they do not have a
chance to be compensated for their R&D spends, the cycle of sustainable
innovation is disrupted and the health of the local software industry is
As a result, it would discourage any organisation to take on the effort of
expensive R&D to improve upon the same as they would not see any benefit in
This would lead to a disruption in the software ecosystem. Both open source
and commercial software are integral parts of the broader software
ecosystem, and the two models have co-existed within the software ecosystem
We are not averse to sharing our source codes with our customers if it will
be beneficial for them, however we are concerned about the potential
implications of GPL.
The problems created by GPL result from the onerous licensing terms that it
contains. The GPL requires that all third parties must have the right to
make unlimited copies of GPL-licensed software and distribute them free of
Obviously, it is extremely difficult for a software company to generate
revenue by distributing a program if everyone has the right to distribute
unlimited copies of the same program free of charge.
We believe that software has commercial value and attempts to render
software free will ultimately undermine the software industry, causing less
R&D to go into software development and ultimately less innovation for
R Gopalakrishnan, Secretary to chief minister, Madhya Pradesh:
A more appropriate query would be why haven't governments done it earlier.
The implications for public policy are fairly obvious. First is cost.
Commercial software costs money and open source software is free. Even after
accounting for training and installation costs of open source software, it
may still cost anywhere between one-half to one-tenth of commercial software
depending on the application.
The ocean of unnecessary features in commercial software makes hardware
expensive and obsolescence cycles shorter. Getting locked into all future
upgrades again becomes serious issue.
By going along the open source path, a government will spend less money and
receive the same or better features, functionality and performance.
Even the money that they spend will not be invested in product prices, but
in training and developing tens of thousands of their own people creating a
competence that will become a long-term asset for the state and its people.
The issue of cost is vitally tied to liberating India to become a land of
one billion opportunities.Digital inclusion will become possible only with
low-cost computers combined with open source software and broadband
Some experts feel that even at a conservative estimate, the
hardware-software savings with an open source based thin client can be 75%
or more as compared with MS Windows-office fat desktop.
This is perhaps the reason why countries like China, Brazil, South Africa
and Germany have chosen open source software and why it finds endorsement in
major emerging markets.
The good old standard operating procedure of bureaucracies, when confronted
with the unknown, was to ask a question "what is happening in other places"?
In this case we seemed to have missed that question.
The issue of security is important for public policy. It is practically
impossible to prove proprietary software is more secure than free software.
Public systems will need to enshrine security and proprietary software that
guards source codes inherently have a problem with governments that would
not want their core systems to be dominated by external monopolies.
We must admit that e-governance, so far in India, has been a play in the
margins, the eulogising of the cow that got sold on the internet. As we
begin to put more citizen-services in the public domain the issue of costs
and security will need to be squarely faced.
In the area of education, governments will need to enlist the computer as a
tool to push the frontiers of learning to improve quality. We need to
transit from the current obsession with mere computer literacy to generate
cyber coolies for the market but see the potential of the medium to
stimulate the inherent creativity of the human mind. Open source software
has been the preferred medium in learning institutions because here students
can investigate the medium they work with and construct knowledge.
What can be the down-side of a policy shift to open source software in
India? The standard fear is about who will provide maintenance and support.
This fear is negated by the fact that there is a blooming support service
industry which is set to grow as policy gets proactive on open source
Why has not there been a national policy as yet on promotion of open source
software? Part of the reason is the policy leadership of southern Indian
states where the issues were focused more on IT production than on IT use.
Another part of the reason is fragmented bureaucratic turf. Given the poor
penetration of information technology in India, there is now a growing
realisation that India will need to move to a more comprehensive "ICT Policy
for Development". While formulating such a policy through a multi-sectoral
forum that brings together the ministries of planning, finance, HRD, CIT,
etc., the ministry of science and technology may need to comprehensively
address the question as to whether the "technology framework of a
government" can be based on proprietary standards. That will hopefully
settle this issue.
Public policy cannot be authored on the basis of freebies or initial
sweeteners in terms of discounts offered by monopolies. It has to be
informed by a long-term vision. The decision of the government of Madhya
Pradesh to prefer open source software of Linux for its computer-enabled
education programme was, like the chief minister stated, a matter of
"choosing between a free software and a monopoly".
It ought not to be seen as a vote against any particular company. Inherent
in the debate on open source software are issues of freedom, monopoly and
choice of the buyer. The internet itself is premised on freedom, sharing and
decentered activity. And freedom, is as of yet, one of the best ideas that
humankind has produced. (ENDS)