Representative Phil Barnhart of the Oregon state legislature in March introduced a bill that would compel the state to pledge to strongly consider Linux and other open source programs in all future purchase decisions. Barnhart’s bill doesn’t require that the state purchase Linux or any other software. It simply calls for an examination of the merits of open source software during the buying process.
Regardless of what you think of Microsoft’s newly released Windows 2003 server, Linux or any other piece of software, it’s worth taking a closer look at what Barnhart is asking of the state. It may be throwing oil on the fire to add yet another complication into the practice of shopping for IT, but there are good reasons to consider instituting similar referenda inside most corporate IT shops. Chief among those reasons: to keep vendors honest.
Flying Without a Net
A big part of the Oregon proposal has to do with saving money by buying freely available software. Barnhart writes in a comment on the legislation posted on his Web site that open source could save the state “millions of dollars.” With IT spending growth worldwide still forecast to be between negative 1 percent and positive 6 or 7 percent in 2003, it’s no surprise that programs that cost little or nothing are appealing to many. In that sense, Barnhart’s bill really does take “free software” to mean “free as in beer,” as Richard Stallman feared many would.
Nonetheless, Barnhart’s bill is not just about saving money. It’s also about maintaining control over the software you buy. With Windows NT reaching “end-of-life” this year in terms of its support contracts from Microsoft, many IT shops are realizing that the software they bought from the big, reliable company will soon be unacknowledged by that same company. It’s kind of like the old Mission Impossible caveat: “We will disavow any knowledge of this product.”
The Oregon proposition states in its findings that “It is also in the public interest that the state be free […] of restrictions imposed by parties outside the state’s control on how, and for how long, the state may use the software it has acquired[…]” It goes on to say that “Open source software contains no restrictions on how, or for how long, it may be used.”
The legislation does not say explicitly that Windows NT will cease to function after its end-of-life, but the formal language, and the comparison of open and closed source, serves as a tacit acknowledgment that proprietary software is essentially dead once the big, reliable vendor that sold it abandons its creation.
Imagine No Vendors
Even control, however, is not the ultimate issue. Companies still may find third parties that can help them with their aging software installations. In fact, many companies have been running Windows NT, Windows 2000 Server and other products for long enough that they have uncovered many of the bugs and discovered solutions they can implement without Redmond’s help.
Instead, the greater reason underlying the bill is contained in the simple proviso to “consider” the alternatives. “Consider,” the bill says, “acquiring open source software products in addition to proprietary software products.” No requirements, in other words, to buy open source, but rather a mandate to entertain the alternatives in a market.
After more than five years of judicial football over the effects of monopolies, there is no better advice for the world’s software users than to consider the alternatives. One of the most potent effects of Linux, StarOffice, the GNU codebase and the Mozilla browser, among other open-source projects, is to ensure an indestructible competitive presence in the marketplace. In answer to the proprietary vendors’ caveat — We may make your software obsolete — open source is a memento mori: Remember that you may be passed over by customers.
Amid the crazed turf battles and daily horror shows of building critical infrastructure, the exhortation to consider open source is a reminder that there are alternatives, and that users should always desire choice. Building such resolve into official IT practice is probably a good idea for every company that will buy software in coming years.
Note: The opinions expressed by our columnists are their own and do not necessarily reflect the views of the E-Commerce Times or its management.