The recent release of the Open Source Procurement Toolkit by the Cabinet Office has been interesting and encouraging, even if it did stir in me a certain scepticism that things will be different this time round. Under both Labour and Conservative administrations, the Cabinet Office has been tasked with increasing the adoption of open source by government departments, and each time a fine statement has been made that has resulted in very little change.
A key part of the problem is that policies are being framed in the context of cost control. The use of the word "free" to describe software has had the obvious effect of leading anyone seeing the word used without further context to assume the matter at hand is money. But it's not. The fact that open source software can be obtained without payment of a license fee is a cruel distraction from the real values.
Those real values are all liberties - the liberty to use software for any purpose and give it to anyone and the liberty to read and modify the source code and make a new version. As I've explained elsewhere, the fact that any given user may not want all of those liberties is irrelevant; what matters is that any someone can do so, with the result that an entirely new set of market dynamics are created that focus of software liberties rather than supplier profits.
The reason this is a problem is twofold; it encourages circumvention and it under-values the true strengths of open source. We see both illustrated in this week's news.
First, circumvention. On his blog, Tony Collins illustrates the problem that one common response to a decision to use open source by a government body is for a proprietary supplier to offer "the first hit free", to paraphrase Bill Gates. A decision to use open source software (the excellent LibreOffice in this case) was justified solely by license price and not also on the value of the flexibility that comes from the extra liberties it offers. That meant a deal involving free copies of Microsoft Office won the contract away from open source. No allowance was made for the cost of "upgrades" or the fact the Microsoft software will push proprietary file formats by default. No allowance for the fact that there's no need to do end-user license management with LibreOffice. Just a one-time 100% discount on the (arbitrary) license price was enough to justify eternal upgrade bills and lock-in.
Second, under-valuing true strengths. I've alluded to a number of them above, but they come into focus as we scan the news links:
- A speaker responding to the Cabinet Office news asserted that neglecting the extra liberties open source offers "puts the NHS at risk".
- A Cabinet Office speaker at the same event comments on how open source improves some of the aspects of security without endangering others.
- Meanwhile, a proprietary software company refuses to patch a critical security defect and because they are the only ones with the source, no-one else can.
As software has been increasingly commoditised, the differentiating values for procurement are increasingly the liberties that the software comes with - or which have been withheld, in the case of proprietary software.
So how should we view the Cabinet Office open source toolkit? On the one hand it's tremendously encouraging to see yet another iteration of the gradual process of change, as well as to hear speakers commenting on values other than license cost. But on the other hand it's clear that the added value of open source - or rather, the missing values of proprietary software - are still not front and centre of the policy focus.
To actually generate change, we'll need to see a focus on the liberties that make open source worth paying extra for. And that's still not the focus of this toolkit.