Governments and Open Source Software

I have blogged about the benefits of government support and encouragement for using open source software, but I was reminded about this topic when reading a blog by Matt Asay on InfoWorld.

Matt has a really great point here:

“it’s clear that money really isn’t driving these decisions. Freedom is. Freedom from lock-in to vendors whose interests are not always aligned with the government’s. Freedom to build up the local economy…” (InfoWorld Blog)

People tend to talk about how open source is free (as in free beer) saying that the cost factor leads governments (especially in emerging countries or countries without many resources) to select open source. This misses the point and misses a great opportunity. Many governments do not want to be locked into purchases that require them to pay large sums of money to big software companies in the US and other wealthy nations. These governments also have the opportunity to grow a robust, local software ecosystem and create local jobs by using open source. With readily accessible source code and online communities of developers, local companies can be formed to provide support and service, consulting, and system integration. This creates local jobs and supports the local community by combining open source software with local services, something any government would readily champion.

Open Source E-Government System for Colorado

This is a great way to put the community benefits of open source into practice. Several local Colorado governments are creating an open source e-government system that will allow people to perform a number of services online (animal registration, parking ticket payment, etc.) The reason for doing this as an open source project is particularly interesting:

“We would love to have other organisations using the product. For example, if a small rural community in Australia implemented the system and added an animal registration module, they could contribute that module back to the project and everyone else could use it” (ZDNet UK).

This collaboration and spirit of sharing in order to have the best possible end product is one of the reasons that open source culture so compelling. I will be curious to see how the project progresses and to see how other governments decide to participate.

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Linux Cafe

Toronto now has a Linuxcaffe: coffee, sandwiches, and Linux all under the same roof. Open source groups use this as a meeting place, and you can buy various open source and penguin gear along with your espresso. They also say that if you are looking for a new Linux distro, “The CD burner and the panini grill take about the same amount of time (hint, hint).”

Portland, Oregon is a hot bed of open source activity. We have Linus Torvalds, OSDL, the OSCON conference, POSSE, FreeGeek, and many other open source activities. We are also known for having a coffee shop and brew pub on nearly every corner. I would encourage some local entrepreneur to open a Linux café or Linux pub here in Portland!

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This Week in Open Source News for Feb 13 – Feb 19

With the Open Source Business conference in San Francisco on February 14 & 15, quite a bit of open source news was revealed as companies timed press releases and announcements to coincide with the event. The most significant was the Oracle acquisition of Sleepycat, which I covered in several previous blog entries. I will not cover it again here, but I encourage everyone to read the previous posts.

Sun announced that they are GPLing UltraSPARC technology along with a quote from Richard Stallman: “The free world welcomes Sun’s decision to use the Free Software Foundation’s GNU GPL for the freeing of OpenSPARC,” said Richard Stallman, founder of the Free Software Foundation. This is quite an endorsement from Richard Stallman and shows that Sun is able to get support of the open source community on efforts like this one. I will be curious to see how people use this open source code and what kind of community develops for this project.

Microsoft and SugarCRM announced their new technical collaboration at OSBC, and they distributed Valentine’s Day chocolate bars that read, “Share the Love”. This will be part of Microsoft’s shared source initiative and will improve the interoperability between SugarCRM and Windows Server products. Although it sounds odd to have Microsoft at open source conferences (Microsoft even gave one of the keynotes), it is important for people to recognize that many open source software packages run on Windows in addition to Linux and other operating systems. It never ceases to amaze me to hear people say, “I can’t run open office because I run Windows.” People tend to have an automatic association between open source and Linux that is not justified. Both use open source licenses, but open source software can run on any operating system. In other words Linux is open source, but open source does not imply the use of Linux as the operating system.

The GPL debate continued this week at OSBC with a panel of lawyers leading a discussion about the new version of the license. The conversation mostly addressed questions about the license and areas where further clarification is needed, which supports the view that it is still too early to take a definitive stance on whether or not to use the license.

Scalix announced the availability of the latest version of their enterprise email and calendar solution. They demoed the web client version of this product at OSBC, a slick, fast, AJAX-based client with an Outlook look and feel.

There were too many new product releases and other news announcements to cover this week, so this is a sampling of the stories that I found the most interesting. Tune into this blog every Sunday for the best open source news of the week.

More on Oracle: The MySQL Twist

In an interview yesterday with MySQL CEO Marten Mickos, he confirmed that Oracle had approached MySQL with an acquisition offer. Unlike JBoss and Zend, MySQL turned down the offer.

MySQL and Oracle do not directly compete in most markets with Oracle focused more on back end applications and MySQL focused on high volume markets; however, there is a gray area of overlap in these markets where they do compete. MySQL would have been a good product fit for Oracle, but I still do not believe that this would have been a good move for the overall software and open source ecosystem (see previous blog post). This supports my earlier argument that Oracle is going after the application control points within the open source stack. Many customer solutions use MySQL, Zend, and / or JBoss as part of the basic LAMP stack, and Oracle seems to be going after all of the acquirable application control points (the Apache Foundation is a non-profit organization and cannot be acquired). I am becoming even more concerned about how additional Oracle acquisitions could change the balance of power within the open source ecosystem and the broader software community.

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Oracle Buys Sleepycat and Other Implications

In an earlier blog, I discussed some of my concerns about Oracle buying several open source companies, and I still have those concerns along with a few others. Yesterday, Oracle acquired Sleepycat, one of the three open source companies that they had been evaluating. Sleepycat, an open source database company, is a fairly good fit for Oracle, and this acquisition by itself may be a good thing. Sleepycat is fairly small and does not have the broad mind share of other open source databases like MySQL and PostgreSQL.

My primary concern is with the acquisition of JBoss and Zend, which could drastically shift the balance of power within the open source ecosystem toward Oracle. JBoss, an open source Java application server, is within reach of the market share of BEA and IBM (the two leading players in the proprietary application server market). PHP is a cornerstone of the LAMP (Linux, Apache, MySQL, PHP/Perl/Python) stack, and Zend is a popular commercial PHP company. In other words, these are two of the most important open source application companies (along with MySQL), and for Oracle to acquire both of them would put Oracle in a very powerful position within the open source ecosystem. Will this reduce choice or slow innovation within the open source ecosystem?

I also wonder how this might impact MySQL. Oracle has been building more open source database functionality through the acquisition of Sleepycat discussed above and an earlier acquisition of Innobase. The press release announcing the acquisition of Innobase contained a very interesting statement: “InnoDB is not a standalone database product: it is distributed as a part of the MySQL database. InnoDB’s contractual relationship with MySQL comes up for renewal next year. Oracle fully expects to negotiate an extension of that relationship.” It will be interesting to see exactly how Oracle negotiates the InnoDB renewal with MySQL. If Oracle gains control over JBoss & PHP, how will this change the dynamics of this negotiation, and what will happen if they cannot reach an agreement? We may see the open source ecosystem moving away from MySQL and toward open source Oracle databases in cases where customers are looking for greater interoperability or support from Oracle on more components of the LAMP stack. Could we be looking at a LAOP stack? It just doesn’t have the same ring.

This Week in Open Source News for Feb 6 – Feb 12

This is the second Sunday installment of the weekly open source news spotlight to cover the hottest open source news. Unfortunately, this has been a slow week for open source news. I suspect that most companies are holding press releases and other announcements until the Open Source Business Conference February 14th & 15th in San Francisco. I will be attending the conference, and I hope to find time to blog from the event next week.

The GPL debate continued this week with a number of open source advocates calling for patience during this process. They stress that the license is still in the draft phase, and it is too early to predict with any certainty what the final product will or will not contain. They caution against taking a strong stance on whether or not to accept GPL V3 until the license is in its final stages.

The most interesting rumor of the week is that Oracle may acquire three popular open source companies: JBoss, Zend, and Sleepcat. This follows a recent acquisition of Innobase, an open source database company. Oracle is embracing open source software and planning to charge regular fees based on a subscription business model, rather than charging per license. Subscription models that charge users for support and maintenance have been one of the most popular open source business models. This news concerns me for a couple of reasons.

  • First, Oracle could gain considerable control over the open source stack, which according to one source close to the deal, is exactly what Oracle plans to do. When any one company gains too much control over the ecosystem, it tends to stifle innovation and reduce interoperability.
  • Second, Oracle may not be able to effectively assimilate these companies. Oracle is still digesting the Siebel and PeopleSoft acquisitions, which tends to be a lengthy and difficult process that can become self-destructive when too many companies are acquired in a short period of time without giving the companies enough time to work out the internal thrash. These open source companies may be more difficult to assimilate given their unique corporate cultures. Open source companies tend to have cultures that are very different from more traditional, proprietary companies, which may result in an internal culture clash between Oracle employees and open source employees.

The companies are still in talks and have not finalized any of these deals. Some speculate that JBoss may not be worth the price they are asking; however, Marc Fleury (JBoss CEO / Founder) is a smart guy who has repeatedly stressed that JBoss is not for sale, and he may be using the high price to keep JBoss independent unless it becomes really lucrative to become acquired. I will be anxiously watching as these deals develop.

Eclipse, the open source Java development tool, is cited in the news several times this week as big competition for other Java development products. Oracle goes head to head with Eclipse by releasing their new free version of JDeveloper, while Borland exits the tools business with plans to sell JBuilder and other tools citing competition with Eclipse as one reason for this departure.

Novell helps to enhance the look and feel of the Linux desktop this week with the release of considerable enhancements to the XGL framework. Enhancements include a virtual desktop affixed to a cube that rotates, transparent objects, and increased text display speeds.

One final tidbit … This week, Sun and ran ads on the sides of buses in Microsoft’s home town of Redmond, WA.

Check back next week for another rundown of the week’s top open source stories.

Open Source for the Masses

It is great to see an article like this in the mainstream media (Fox News) saying that open source software can be just as good as commercial software. The article goes on to recommend six of the best open source programs including Firefox, Thunderbird, and Gimp. We need articles like this one to help raise public awareness of open source software outside of the geek community.

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Linux Desktop Adoption: Is it being sabotaged by Microsoft?

I ran across this article on Digg today, which claims there are two ways that “Microsoft sabotages Linux desktop adoption”. I am not going to attempt to determine whether or not Microsoft engages in these behaviors; however, I think that this article leaves out a few important issues.

For the record, this is an open source blog, and I am an advocate for open source. I would like to see more people using Linux on the desktop; however, I also think that we need to accurately recognize the challenges with Linux desktop adoption. By understanding why people resist using Linux on the desktop, we can work to tear down the barriers to adoption.

The author claims that Microsoft “has convinced users that a switch to a competing office suite would require too many sacrifices.” This may or may not be true; however, it does not effectively address the issue of resistance to change. In general, people get accustomed to a certain environment and tend to resist ANY changes that are introduced; this is true of most business change efforts, but for some reason, major technology changes seem to have an extremely disruptive influence on at least a portion of the install base. During any migration, we need to recognize that change is hard, and it will take quite a bit of time to get people comfortable with a new environment. I suspect that the natural human tendency to resist change is a more important factor than any specific actions by Microsoft.

The author also says that Microsoft uses its influence to coerce hardware vendors not to support Linux. This refers to the issue that Linux cannot easily be used with certain hardware configurations because the hardware manufactures have not made Linux drivers available. Again, I will not attempt to determine whether or not Microsoft coerces hardware vendors. I do know that when a market exists for a product, companies will usually do whatever it takes to provide a product for the market. In other words, if enough people are running Linux on the desktop, the desktop hardware manufactures will provide support for Linux. This is the chicken and egg problem that I have discussed frequently on this blog. Vendors will not support a product without a critical mass of users, and users will tend not to use a product that vendors do not support. This is a problem with hardware support (drivers) and application availability. We need to recognize this problem if we want to resolve it. I actually think that the driver support for Linux on the desktop is starting to improve (very slowly) due to the vocal minority. Linux desktop users tend to be a small group of people; however, they also tend to be intelligent, loyal, and very vocal when vendors do not step up to provide support for Linux. To overcome this chicken and egg problem, Linux desktop users need to continue to complain frequently, publicly and directly to the companies that are not providing drivers to keep the issue of driver availability in the press and on the minds of the vendors. A small, but loyal and vocal, minority can make a difference.

It is easy to blame Microsoft; however, I do not think that placing blame is the most productive use of our time. We need to understand the issues and work to resolve the issues that we can most directly impact if we want to increase adoption of Linux on the desktop.

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Firefox History and Story of Success

Ben Goodger wrote a great blog today about the roots of Firefox. An important part of his article describes the power struggles and other issues that can result between an open source community and a commercial entity that takes the product to market. In some cases, the community and a company can work well together, but in the case of Netscape and Mozilla many of the interactions were quite dysfunctional. This is a great read for both community members and corporate types to better understand some of the challenges of taking open source products to market (what not to do).

This is also a story about knowing when to start over. The user interface for the browser had so many problems that they felt the best course of action was a fresh approach. In my opinion, this is why Firefox has been so incredibly successful with a broad base of users. Quite a few open source products are designed by developers, for developers with little thought given to usability by the masses. Firefox, on the other hand, was designed from the beginning to be a browser that anyone could use and would want to use to browse the web. Firefox is so intuitive and easy to use that anyone, even those without any advanced computer knowledge, can install and use it. The Firefox community of extension and theme developers has also made it easy for anyone to control and customize the user experience without any programming knowledge required. I have coerced friends and co-workers into installing Firefox, and most of them immediately become addicted to one or more Firefox extensions. A friend of mine installed Firefox for his mom; she was not sure about making the change until he showed her the themes, and when she found that she could use a different theme for each holiday or mood, she was converted. Little things can make a big difference in the adoption of any software product, and Firefox’s attention to detail on the user interface paved the way for the broad success that Firefox is currently enjoying.

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