I was asked several questions by a journalist about open source and the public sector. I’m answering them here in sequence. This is the first of four blog posts and the first question was: Should the public sector use open source software?
The public sector and public governments should use the software that lets them provide the desired services best, long-term. How much open source software this involves is secondary, in my opinion.
That said: Like any industry, the public sector already uses substantial amounts of open source software by way of open source components built into commercial proprietary product. Estimates of the percentage of open source code in commercial products and services go as high as 80-90% of the total code. Open source is everywhere, including in Microsoft Windows and Office.
Perhaps the actual question was: Should the public sector use products exclusively built from open source software?
When purchasing a product, the purchaser should look at all relevant parameters, including long-term costs, speed of innovation, and quality. It is here where open source software shines.
Software products built exclusively from open source software prevent vendor lock-in. Because the software itself is open source software, the user can switch to another company to service the software. This avoids the constant price gouging that software vendors (or any profit-oriented enterprise, really) are known for. Also, once locked in, customers often find it hard to convince the vendor to provide specialized functionality, because chasing new customers rather than making existing ones happy is more lucrative and existing customers are unlikely to switch soon. Without vendor lock-in, customers can avoid such innovation blockage by switching to another provider of services. Finally, if the open source software is widely used and has a thriving community, the speed by which this community develops the software, find bugs, and fixes them, will usually outpace the commercial competitor. As a consequence, the open source software matures faster.
Thus, given two equal products, one built exclusively from open source software, the other containing proprietary code, the open source software always wins: In terms of long-term costs, innovation speed, and software quality.
Finally, the question might have been: Should there be legislation to give open source software preferential treatment, because proprietary vendors are often playing an unfair game?
I suspect this depends on the particular domain. My colleagues at the Open Source Business Association argue strongly in favor of giving open source software preferential treatment, because of unfair tactics of the proprietary vendors. I think that open source has long won and doesn’t really need this help. The challenges for open source software are not rational economic ones, as the next question shows.