TCS Daily

Closing the Door on Choices

By Jessica Davis - August 16, 2002 12:00 AM

Using symbols of democracy, capitalism and freedom as a backdrop, Linux software vendor Red Hat put its muscle behind a demonstration in San Francisco on Thursday in support of legislation that would mandate California's state government to use only open source software, such as Linux, in all new software implementations.

Red Hat is currently seeking a sponsor for this bill, now called the Digital Software Security Act (DSSA), and hopes it can be introduced when the California legislature reconvenes in 2003. [The full text of this proposed bill is available here]

Sporting a red fedora, Red Hat CTO Michael Tiemann led a march of about 50 people, mostly young programmers, from the LinuxWorld Expo at Moscone Center to the San Francisco City Hall. Along the way Tiemann stopped seven times -- in front of an American flag, the Sony PlayStation store and other symbols of capitalism, software and democracy -- to talk to the group about the importance of freedom in the software industry.

Yet while riding under a banner of freedom and democracy, the bill in its current form actually diminishes choices by preventing the California state government from considering the purchase of popular software from companies such as Microsoft, Oracle and IBM. Tiemann says that under the proposed bill, once these companies open their code, the state will also be allowed to consider their software.

Supporters of DSSA say that current procurement policies in the California state government make it difficult if not impossible for the state to select and implement open source software over commercial software provided by big vendors. If that's true, it is unfortunate. Businesses around the globe have certainly recognized the merits of deploying open source software and they have voted with their pocketbooks. It didn't take a new law to get them to switch to Linux if Linux made business sense.

For example, the company that pioneered selling to consumers over the Web,, last year announced it had saved 25 percent of its IT costs in the third quarter of 2001 alone because it switched to Linux. On the Internet, Linux enjoys a 24 percent server market share and will remain the number 2 operating system behind Microsoft Windows through 2005, according to market research firm IDC.

Similarly, telecom giant Verizon Communications announced this week at LinuxWorld that it had saved $6 million in equipment costs by moving its programmers to Linux and OpenOffice from Windows and Unix-based workstations. The average desktop cost dropped from $22,000 to $3,000 per developer.

And the open source community is quick to point out other potential benefits of such software. For example, businesses and governments that choose open source software are not forced to rely on a single vendor for support, security, bug fixes, patches and enhancements. In some circumstances open source software just makes sense.

So why is state government so far behind business in recognizing the benefits available from open source software? One possibility, as Arnold Kling pointed out in an earlier column, is that open source software isn't always as user-friendly as other available options. Citing limitations of the software, Kling says open source enthusiasts fail to understand that "there are people who use computers who are not programmers. Teachers, lawyers, accountants, and secretaries get no benefit whatsoever from being able to tweak the source code or contact a user's group." Kling might add most government bureaucrats and employees to that list as well, since very few likely have extensive technical expertise.

Politics and bureaucracy may also help drive many procurement decisions. The most obvious example is the recent fiasco with a software contract between Oracle and the state of California. In this six-year, no bid contract, the state bought more software licenses than it had employees. An investigation revealed the contract cost at least $6 million more than it should have. A handful of state IT officials resigned over the flap, including the state's chief information officer.

A knee jerk reaction to those kinds of problems might be to move as far away from commercial software, such as Oracle, as fast as possible. But mandating the use of open source just isn't necessary and sets a dangerous precedent, limiting choices rather than expanding them. To provide taxpayers with the best value, procurement professionals need the flexibility to decide the best products for themselves to fit their needs. They need more choices, not fewer.

Jessica Davis is a career journalist who has spent more than 10 years covering business and technology. Her news stories have appeared on, and other technology news sites.

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