As the Education Ministry enters into a $10 million deal with Microsoft to supply software to the country’s schools, the open source movement is stepping up pressure on the government to use free software.
Open source proponents have sent an open letter to ministers Paul Swain, Pete Hodgson and Trevor Mallard, whose portfolios relate to technology, urging government agencies to adopt the Linux operating system. Signatories to the letter total more than 30 people, some who sell open source products and services and staff from universities, design companies, energy companies and crown research institutes.
The letter points out that the governments of France, Brazil, Mexico and China are considering legislation which favours open source software and says open source supporters would welcome the opportunity to present the capabilities of open source software to the government as well as their ability to support it.
“We would like to discuss ways in which the government can encourage its use by means including legislation, tax incentives and government-funded initiatives.
“At minimum we would like a commitment from the government that all government-funded publicly accessible software projects, like the current ‘e-government initiative’, be built to open standards. Such a requirement would ensure access to anyone, whether they are using a proprietary of an OSS [open source software] computing platform.” The letter also talks about possible savings through the use of free open source products.
Letter organiser David Lane, who operates Christchurch-based open source business Egressive.com, describes the Microsoft schools deal as “unfortunate”. He believes the move will create a generation of children who effectively have to rent the work they’ve created on their PCs from Microsoft, because no other product will allow them access to their data. “Their creativity won’t actually belong to them; it will belong to Microsoft because the file formats are proprietary.”
He concedes that students might find it easier to use Microsoft desktop products because that’s what they’re used to. “But any time you involve a network or a server, open source or Linux will provide a better solution and be much more reliable and cost-effective.”
Lane also says there are open source products such as Star Office from Sun Microsystems, which is free, that provide equivalent functionality to Microsoft Office.
But Education Minister Trevor Mallard says the licensing deal is highly competitive. Schools currently have a variety of computer software arrangements which generally have been negotiated school by school. Under the new arrangement, all schools will have their Microsoft desktop software licensed under one agreement covering about 70,000 PCs. State Services Commission e-government unit head Brendan Boyle, who has looked at Lane’s letter, says government departments implement the solution that meets their needs and there isn’t a government policy on open source software.
“For this unit I’ve made it clear that proposals using open source solutions are welcome.”
Boyle says the e-government unit is also strongly encouraging government agencies to consider interoperability in their technology choices. To this end the unit is producing an interoperability framework which he says may become goverment policy.
The letter can be read here.