History passing us by

New Zealand governments have a proud history of making progressive policy decisions. We banned nuclear warships from our harbours. We pioneered the nanny state. New Zealand women got the vote long before their sisters elsewhere in the world.

New Zealand governments have a proud history of making progressive policy decisions. We banned nuclear warships from our harbours. We pioneered the nanny state. New Zealand women got the vote long before their sisters elsewhere in the world.

Might we continue this tradition by being early to mandate the use of open source software in the public sector? Not that anyone would rank software choice on the same scale of importance as social policy. But a bold decision on open source would certainly gain the country a place in IT history, just as social historians like to namecheck us.

The opportunity is fast slipping away, however. For one thing, numerous other governments have beaten us to the punch. Two years ago the French government told state agencies to use open source software wherever possible. Thailand and the Philippines have developed or are working on open source desktop suites for state employees. Germany last year did a deal with IBM for supply of Linux hardware and software to government agencies. And Peru hit the headlines – and provoked a heavy-handed Microsoft response -- when it proposed a law mandating government use of open source software.

So it’s getting too late to be an early state adopter of open source. Add to that the fact that, after about nine months of negotiating, the government is about to renew its licensing agreement with Microsoft and it’s apparent that this is an area of policy in which we’re not going to break ground.

Why not? I’d hate to think that the government’s lukewarmness on the question of open source had anything to do with being overly cosy with Microsoft. Yet there seem grounds for such suspicion. Microsoft can be a great flatterer and bestower of favours when it is in its interests to be so. In 2001, for example, it did a two-year deal with the government for supply of software to schools. Education and State Services Minister Trevor Mallard, whose two portfolios make him a key target for Microsoft’s blandishments, said the $10 million deal effectively meant 70,000 school computers were being equipped with $800 of software for $65 each.

That’s a great discount, but when several times that sum are at stake in the public sector as a whole, another way to think of it is as a modest investment by the software company. Elsewhere Microsoft has shown itself willing to make such investments when its government business is threatened by open source. In Mexico, for example, it’s diverted the government away from open source by sinking an estimated $US100 million into provision of training and software for teachers and technicians. In the UK, it “helped” the government make software licensing savings of $US150 million when officials baulked at the prospect of licence cost increases.

Inducements like those make New Zealand’s schools deal pale into insignificance. The loss of our government as a loyal Microsoft customer, however, would certainly be significant. The open source movement, which is just as quick to trumpet its successes as any corporate PR machine, would see to that. But the impending licensing deal will ensure no such opportunity is put its way. Mallard, whose last utterance on open source (in June 2002) was that “the government has no position for or against it”, appears to have no wish to make software history. But at the very least, the government should be using the open source lever to extract highly favourable terms from Microsoft.

Doesburg is Computerworld’s editor. Send letters for publication to Computerworld Letters.

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