To go ‘open source’ or not

November 16, 2006

The filing of House Bill 5769, the Free Open Source Software (FOSS) Act of 2006, sponsored by Bayan Muna Representative Teodoro Casiño fueled once again the raging debate on the use of proprietary software versus open source systems. The Bill follows the experience of countries like Brazil, China, Vietnam, and Malaysia which have legislated FOSS laws.

The proposed Bill mandates government entities to use open source software. They are only exempted from using open source software under “extraordinary circumstances.” Universities and training institutions are also mandated to shift to FOSS. The Bill makes it unlawful for these institutions to only limit certification and training courses to proprietary software. 

What is open source anyway? 

Let me just borrow the meaning from Wikipedia: 

Open source describes practices in production and development that promote access to the end product’s source materials—typically, their source code. Some consider it as a philosophy, and others consider it as a pragmatic methodology. Before open source became widely adopted, developers and producers used a variety of phrases to describe the concept; the term open source gained popularity with the rise of the Internet and its enabling of diverse production models, communication paths, and interactive communities.  Subsequently, open source software became the most prominent face of open source practices.” (http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Open_source#History) 

Technology Change Management Challenge

The proposed measure undoubtedly will be a big challenge to the government in terms of changing the current IT practices and culture. To help in the migration to open source software, the Bill creates the Office of FOSS Migration, attached to the CICT. The following are the Bill’s objectives: 

  • In 3 years: 90% of government IT professionals, and 65% of the country’s IT professionals are to be proficient in FOSS systems.
  • In 5 years: 75% of all existing government systems shall use and employ FOSS.

These ambitious goals require a technology change management framework, not to mention a change of mindset. My experience in implementing system change and what I have learned from my TM Class on Change Management tell me that this would not be as easy as it may sound. Although we have case studies on FOSS implementation from the countries mentioned above, the Philippine political culture as we know it would play a big part in the implementation.

Open Source Experience: Project POSITIVE

The Philippines experience on open source software is not without a success story. Take the case of Project POSITIVE (Philippine Open Source Initiative). Project POSITIVE was conceived by European IT Service Center Foundation (EITSC) in partnership with the German development organization Deutsche Gesellschaft fuer Technische Zusammenarbeit (GTZ) and the wireless service provider Wireless Services Asia (WSA).

The project originally targeted 100 schools, but to date an additional 115 colleges and universities has integrated an open source courseware designed by a consortium of open source advocates. A total of 265 professors of computer courses have participated in a hands-on train-the-trainer program.

FOSS getting momentum across ASEAN

In 2003 the United Nations Development Program (UNDP) initiated the International Open Source Network (IOSN) to “promote the adoption of free/open source software, open standards, and open content for sustainable human development in the Asia-Pacific region”.

In time for the public discussion on House Bill 5769, the IOSN held the Southeast Asia’s first FOSS@Work: An International Conference-Workshop for Small to Medium Enterprises in the IT Industry in Manila last November 11-15, 2006. The conference was attended by open source developers from across Southeast Asia.

Opposition to the Bill

An expected strong opposition to the House Bill 5769 would come from the representative organization of the Philippine software industry, the Philippine Software Industry Association (PSIA). They fear that the Bill will affect the local software industry’s target to generate revenues and employment for the country by 2010. According to PSIA, the local software industry generated over $200 million in revenues and 14,000 jobs in 2005. They aim to increase that to $1 billion and 100,000 jobs by 2010.

PSIA says that government has no expertise in mandating the use of one technology platform over the other. The group believes the creation of industry skills across various platforms are the responsibility of the government and that the government should collaborate with the private sector and academe to foster “correct skills” required by the market.

What’s in it for us?

My personal take on this recent development is that, notwitstanding the technical, implementation and compatibility issues, the adoption of FOSS by both the government and private businesses is a positive step towards the general adoption by the Filipinos of alternative (and free) software. This will not only lessen the burden on the bottom line of most SMEs but will, hopefully, give rise to a responsible citizenry able to avoid proprietary software that they cannot afford. This will somehow help resolve the lingering problem on the use of pirated software by SMEs and ordinary Filipinos by educating them that FOSS is equally excellent as proprietary software.

10 Responses to “To go ‘open source’ or not”

  1. ericdc Says:

    I am in favor of free open source software. Although I am not sure if it is a good idea to mandate all government agencies to use them. A bill that will requirement them to use FOSS will take away their ability to choose which software is best suited for their requirements. Choosing the best comes with a price tag. That is the marketing approach of MS. By putting a value to the quality of their products, they include free software upgrades.

    In the case of open source, there is a catch. When it means “free” it pertains to having access to their source code. Customer support such as training and software upgrades are not free however. Unless you are a developer, you have no need for those source codes. And unless you have the technical experience and skills to use FOSS, then you can take the risk of ignoring customer support.

    The cost you save for an outright purchase will be leveraged by the cost you put in familiarization, keeping in-house IT support, and upgrades.

  2. dwinnix Says:

    I am in favor of open source software too. Operating Systems (OS) and Databases (DB), in particular, have reached their maturity already, much of the innovations that are happening now for these technologies are purely incremental in nature. As long as the PC can access the internet, anyone can do business already, with all the web-based applications around. Who would have thought we can make this blog work with zero capital investment in technologies.

    Some major companies, in fact, still operate on a Windows 2000 platform or lower. There are even a few who still use FoxPro databases for their POS and remains to be a market leader. Upgrades are only necessary because of ‘threats’ for out-of-support. But come to think of it, has any business suffered because it has not upgraded to XP or Vista?

    The idea that OS and DB and to a certain extent the Application Layer that runs it, can become a utility similar as electricity and water is very probable.

  3. jrb Says:

    A goverment mandate on the use of FOSS is a greate leverage for its universal adoption. I agree that the choice of which software to use must be based on the business requirements. However, at the current state of FOSS which has matured already there are lots of choices to select from. On the OS side, there is Linux with its many distributions (red hat, mandrake, novell and many others) and Sun Solaris (recently released as open source under GPL license). On the productivity side, there is OpenOffice and other equally great software.

    Quality is not an issue for FOSS as, like any other software, the development goes through rigorous stages and peer reviews and testing. Upgrade is free so no need to worry about the cost.

    Customer support I would say is not really that required by most companies. All they need is somebody who knows how to install the software. Who needs support on word or excel or powerpoint? The problem on OS and productivity software is negligble on a daily basis.

    A follow-up article will posted about open source.

  4. ojiels Says:

    Great exchanges fellows but let me share a particular case here in the country related to advocacy of Open source.

    The DOST-ASTI has been doing developments on open source applications and has been advocating for its use at least in government agencies. Pre-CICT, this initiative didnt cover too much ground. With the creation of the CICT however, this and other IT related projects have been given the necessary focus it needs. One notable project is the Bayanihan Linux, which is pretty much a hybrid of all Linux variants. DOST-ASTI has been deploying and providing support for this OS and has provided trainings for those who adopted it.

    For more details, please go to http://www.bayanihan.gov.ph/

  5. ericdc Says:

    The more people use a particular software the less problems and complicated it become. When Linux was initially marketed some years back, there were a lot of skepticism because there was already Unix and Windows. Unix was used mostly for servers while Windows was for desktops. When buying a server, IT people know that the safest OS to use was Unix. When buying a dektop, the easiest OS to use was Windows. Linux changed all because not only is it free to the taking, it is also safe from viruses and easy to use with its GUI based tools.

    Fast forward to the present and you now have a lot of variations in Linux, free database and free office suite softwares. That’s good for us users. However, in deciding to purchase a software, price is not only the issue. We also have to know the the software capability in regards to scalability, reliability, and other factors. Choosing a FOSS is like choosing a generic tool that will try to fit the needs of the user or a corporation. But it will not provide all the answers and not give that company that competitive edge simply because if everyone uses FOSS, then everyone is doing the same thing.

    As a platform, FOSS is the right approach. But for specific and special programs, third party proprietary softwares come in. To lessen cost, go for FOSS such as Linux and OpenOffice suites. Then for special application, develop or choose a third party proprietary software to fit your needs. In a worse case scenario, you avoid wasting money changing the whole IT infrastructure by just changing the application software if it didn’t fit your needs.

    For home users, if you are not a heavy games user and just use the pc for documents, presentations, and spreadsheets, by all means use free software. You not only save on the software cost but also on the hardware cost.

  6. jrb Says:

    Eric your right. FOSS is specially good for those who may want to save cost on OS and some productivity software like office suites. This is already a great savings for most companies.

    However, for special requirements by companies such as accounting or HR system third party proprietary software or customized software running on FOSS OS would be the best option.

  7. ojiels Says:

    guys, check this out! another interesting (or perhaps less knowledgable) perspective.

    http://business.inquirer.net/money/columns/view_article.php?article_id=33835

  8. ericdc Says:

    Wow!!! Just read the article Ojie… Now I’m convinced that House Bill 5769 is not a good idea. It simply goes against the rules of a market-driven economy, the option of choosing which is better.

    You can just imagine the billions of pesos just to change all the IT infrastructure in each government agency. It is not just changing the OS or Office suite tools, you are also looking at the big mess it will create with all “EXISTING RECORDS/DATA” and then migrating them to a new database system, trainings and familiarization of users, and then customization. Do they think doing all this work is FREE? It will go against the same principles they wanted to implement FOSS in the first place. Who will shoulder all the expense in converting to FOSS? People’s taxes?

    Re-engineering the IT infrastructure of a company or government agency is done for good reason and measure. Free or Open source software is simply that, free or open, it does not mean it is better or make government service better.

    I really hope they get their minds together before passing such laws or policies. If they wanted to promote the use of FOSS, then why don’t they just propose a bill that will support and give tax incentives or bonuses to private or public corporations that uses, develops, and trains FOSS.

  9. dwinnix Says:

    hmm… i wonder which OS the computerized voting system is supposed to run. this bill is another delaying tactic, and a very costly one, to making this system work. oh well, everyone’s wealthy during election times.

    it is never good for any venture, be in government or business or personal, to choose and adopt a technology without going through a process of identifying the actual needs of the users and critical requirements of the business. approving without thinking will compel one to do a SOFTWARE FIT – forcing the technology to work despite a number of technical issues that are unable to address the requirements, which should have been known prior to making the decision.

  10. Laibeus Lord Says:

    ericdc, sudden change of stance regarding FLOSS Philippines?

    You see, the author of the Bill is confused or doesn’t know “much” (I am not saying he doesn’t know anything) about “Free” and “Open-Source”, I added “and” because these two are really different.

    The Bill shouldn’t even be called FLOSS or FOSS because the Bill is about “Open-Source” not “Free”. The Bill is even obviously confused with “why” the word “Free” is used in the international terminologies (ie FLOSS, FOSS, FS). The Bill do not state what “Free” really is, but rather explains what “Open-Source” is.

    There are more and more non-Free Open-Source coming out today, and more in development. But most Free Software are Open-Source.

    What is “Free” in FS/FLOSS/FOSS, anyway?
    Free here means freedom. “Free as in free-speech” not “free as in free beer”.
    Much simpler – Free here is NOT “free-of-charge”.

    That is why FLOSS is more popular now than FOSS. The “L” in FLOSS is “Libre”, a Spanish and French word which means “freedom” as in “free-speech”. The “Free” that you and me know is “gratis” as in “free-of-charge”.

    Yes, if you will be asking, not all “freeware” are FS or OSS, since “freeware” refers to “gratis software”.

    That is what’s lacking in the Bill, it explained the OSS part but not the FS part. The Bill itself is confused and seems the author is as confused as the Businessmen are (no one is blaming them for the confusion).

    People and businesses always mistakes the word “Free” in FS/FOSS/FLOSS as “gratis” (again “free-of-charge”), which is wrong. So people are surprised that there or there will be expenses for FLOSS coz they thought it should be gratis (free-of-charge/cost/expenses).

    If the Bill is passed into Law, there will SURELY be expenses, even AFTER we reach 100% shift to FLOSS, because it is not gratis but libre (freedom).

    Both FS and OSS proponents/supporters/great thinkers agree that you can charge for your FS and OSS, but these fees will usually be almost half of its proprietary counterpart. Example, Sun’s StarOffice 8 is half the price of Microsoft Office 2003 (imagine if it’s 2007 which is more expensive). SO8 was based on OpenOffice.org (which was based on StarOffice original) with some proprietary codes included. Because the codes are mostly FLOSS, the cost of SO8 is way cheaper than MS Office. (note: It is not “Free Software” because in FS, you are not allowed to mix your code with proprietary codes; and you must give your Source. SO8 can’t, because it has proprietary codes.)

    The difference between FS and OSS is confusing already, so we’ll leave that out. But generally, “Free” in FLOSS/FOSS is not free-of-expenses/charge/fees. It is “freedom”, freedom to what?

    Freedom to:
    Re-distribute the software
    Re-copy the software
    Give the software or pass-around
    Look at the source code and study it
    Create your own build using its source code
    Create your new software using its source code
    Use those codes for your own totally new software

    * Of course some of those I mentioned are not allowed depending on the FLOSS License the software has been declared.

    FLOSS will be very good for the Philippines, and we have huge problems of “funding” in our country, fresh graduates migrate to other countries to get their ideas to fruition. FLOSS can help them.

    One suggestion tho, the Bill should crystal clear explain and differentiate “Free Software” and “Open-Source Software”. And the Bill should be renamed to FLOSS (Free/Libre Open-Source Software) not FOSS or F/OSS (Free/Open-Source Software) because “Free Software” is not 100% the same as “Open-Source Software” and vice versa.

    Example: There are FS Licenses that OSS do not recognize and vice versa. The Bill before it becomes a Law must be Crystal Clear about FS and OSS – hence, Free/Libre Open-Source Software or FLOSS.

    My two cents.


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