Open source may have a role in government

The enormous economic stimulus plan known as the "American Recovery and Reinvestment Act" currently before Congress will no doubt filter down to the IT business in the form of government spending on a wide variety of tech-based programs. One of the more worthwhile of many such programs is the proposed $1 billion for an Education Technology program, designed to create "21st century classrooms" with more computer and science labs and teacher technology training, although there are several different verticals beyond education that will derive benefit.

Sun Microsystems chairman Scott McNealy, who has President Obama's ear on the matter, is apparently promoting the advantages of open source for use in many of these programs, even suggesting that government mandate use of open source products. Sun moved its Java program to open source just a few years ago. Plenty of VARs and service providers would disagree with such a mandate, arguing that while open source may be a good fit in many circumstances, proprietary software may still be called for in others--and a mandate for strict use of only open source would be too limiting. And while it's probably impractical for government to issue an end-to-end mandate for open source exclusively, McNealy does have some good arguments for why it can be useful, citing high quality, lower costs, and better reliability. The ability to avoid a lock-in from a particular vendor is also one of the biggest arguments in its favor--a good one, in light of the recession and the number of companies that seem to be going out of business this year.

On this subject, I had an interesting email conversation with Richard Stallman, founder of the Free Software Foundation, who differentiated for me the difference between "open source" and "free software," which I had always thought of as the same thing; but there is a subtle difference (that will no doubt be lost on the politicians in Washington). The difference is one of philosophy; proponents who espouse "open source" advocate it as a methodology of development that is superior because it allows for access to source code and therefore constant improvement and modification. Those who espouse "free software" see the openness also as a moral imperative, which grants freedoms to the user that should be, according to its proponents, inherent in all software development.

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