Mr. Tux Goes to Washington

A bunch of granola chewing hippies freedom loving technologists sent a letter to President Obama, encouraging him to consider open source software. Signed by representatives from Novell, Red Hat, Unisys, and a bunch of other open source solutions companies, the letter is well-written piece of advocacy. Of course, not everyone supports the initiative.

The Register pooh-poohs the notion of open source advocates contacting President Obama, calling it “toothless”.

If open source is going to make any real headway in the government, there needs to be an incentive to choose it, not a rule. Time and again, this is where the open source community falls short: Quality code isn’t enough of an incentive. You can put the best engineering in the world into your product, but if you don’t know how to market, your project will rot in the source repository.

So wait a tick — these open source advocates are doing exactly that: marketing their products, and yet they’re still doing it wrong? The U.S. Federal Government is an insanely complicated beast, so it’s unlikely that open source software alone can fix all that’s wrong with the government. But then, I didn’t get the impression from the letter that that was what was being advocated. I got the impression that open source should be considered in general, as part of a comprehensive decision making process. In those instances where open source software makes sense, its use should be strongly considered.

A couple choice quotes from the original letter, for your consideration:

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 software provides for platform independence, which makes quick deployments that benefit our citizens much easier and realistic.

A lot of people have expressed dissatisfaction with the closed-source, black-box electronic voting machines being rolled out across the country by Diebold, Sequoia, and others. Here’s one area where a critical evaluation of open source solutions against the status quo might make a demonstrable improvement. I’m not saying that we should blindly deploy open source electronic voting solutions — we shouldn’t blindly deploy anything — but government would do well to serve its citizens by evaluating the alternatives.

We want to encourage you 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.

That’s a pretty good idea, no? How many systems throughout the government can’t speak to one another because they were designed behind closed doors by different companies? Again, a full-scale switch to open source software isn’t going to be a cure-all for complexity, incompatibilities, and conflicting requirements; but surely there must be at least some systems used by the government that would benefit from a transition to open source software. As the need arises to replace those systems, why not consider open source software?

I frankly don’t expect President Obama to give a damn about open source software in particular, but hopefully he passes the letter off to the appropriate people within his administration who will care, and be in a position to consider the merits of the suggestion.