February 10, 2009, 10:04 AM — A group of prominent open source industry executives have issued an open letter to President Obama highlighting the critical role open-source software could play in the government sector.
There is a lot of talk in Washington about spending money to stimulate the economy, but very little talk about saving money and creating efficient systems. That's not to say that traditional, "closed" software packages don't have their place; there are many, many fine products that are licensed on that basis. However, as any VAR or SI that serves a government agency knows, government is unlike any other customer. There are very specific requirements that don't apply to the private sector, and in many cases, high levels of customization are necessary. Open-source based solutions make a lot of sense here, for this reason alone.
An open-source project doesn't necessarily cost less than a traditional project based on closed-source software, at least at first. But two things come into play that would serve to make government a lot more efficient. The first is that ongoing customization would become a lot easier, and the second is that such a model would promote re-use between government agencies--and that's where the big savings and greater efficiency comes in. Suppose for example, that one state agency creates an open-source solution to meet a specific need. Why should the other 49 states then have to re-invent the wheel? Rather, it makes more sense to take the original open-source code, modify it for each state's particular needs, and enjoy the economies of scale.
In the letter to the President, the executives say, "open-source software brings transparency to software development. there are no 'black boxes' in open-source software and therefore no need to guess what is going on 'behind the scenes.' Ultimately, this means a better product for everyone, because there is visibility at every level of the application, from the user interface to the data implementation. Furthermore, open-source sotware provides for platform independence, which makes quick deployments that benefit our citizens much easier and realistic."
The letter calls open-source software "the tip of the iceberg" in changing how government works, and encourages the President "to find ways for states and agencies to collaborate together on solutions that ultimately are better than the sum of all the individual efforts combined and at much lower cost to each participant. Open-source software encourages this type of collaboration by making the results of previous successful efforts available to others with similar goals and needs."