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SF Gate on Open Source Government 134

Posted by timothy
from the tear-down-this-proprietary-wall dept.
Bruce Perens writes: "At the San Francisco Chronicle's SF Gate, Hal Plotkin points to Sincere Choice as the right compromise for an IT renaissance in Government including both Open Source and proprietary software. The article is extremely flattering to yours truly, but a good push in the right direction from a well-respected commentator."
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SF Gate on Open Source Government

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  • the way you should buy everything? I don't buy cars based on what brand I like, or how their business practices are. I buy the best for the money.
    • >I don't buy cars based on what brand I like, or how their business practices are.

      I doubt the first, and despise the second.

      >I buy the best for the money.
      The problem is, best is a very vague criterium and often includes preferences for a certain company, especially considering cars.

      What car do you drive? A Kia? Toyota?

      Concerning business practices:
      What way do you have to influence companies business practices besides buying or not buying their products.
      When speaking of buisness practices, you probably thought of MS and their behaviour towards other companies. Ignorance of their behaviour is not a reason of despise. But business practice may include support of suppressive goverments, enviromental issues. So, a general disregard of business practice in buying considerations is.

      Shouldn't a government, which should represent the people in its most ideal form, consider the business practices as well?

      Should a goverment buy from a convicted offender?

      Well, I'm a bit more pragmatic than the above words make me look.
      In case of MS I'd say... whatever.
      • >> Should a goverment buy from a convicted offender?

        If he's paid his debt to society, why the hell not? If he's still on probation, well, maybe not... because he truly hasn't finished paying his debt...

      • I'm afraid I have to drift a little off topic here for a while. Bear with me for the big finish that ties it all together. :)

        Your argument is right, and indeed doesn't go far enough. Government is not the same as the private sector, and analogies comparing the two are generally as dangerous as they are useful.

        Government (theoretically) exists for the benefit of the governed. Its job is to serve the governed, who both pay for said services and give government its legitamacy. This (ideally) constrains the behavior of government.

        Most corporations are chartered by the government to turn a profit by any legal means. They might choose to operate with an eye to the common good, or they might not. This gives a business a great deal of freedom to act that government does not, and SHOULD not, have.

        To say that government should operate like the private sector is to invite the governmental version of a monopoly: the tyrrany. Once that takes hold, there's no SEC to break it up... the solution generally involves blood in the streets. I'll pass, thanks.

        Once we dispense with the "government = private sector" fallacy, it's obvious that Mr. Perens has hit on an approach very near the ideal. Mandating open-source does indeed constitute an unwarranted attack on proprietary software, and allowing things to proceed as they are leads us to buy proprietary software to view public documents. Both of these extremes are bad for the people, and thus are bad choices for government.

        Everyone who has tried to migrate data from a closed system can appreciate the merit of this proposal. (In fact, there's a lot to be said for adopting large parts of it to corporate use.) Good work, BP! I'll see if I can take this up with my reps in Oregon next session.
        • What about custom software?
          Does an open data format suffice?
          Not all the information lies in data.

          Isn't it sensible that the goverment should own all rights to modification on custom software?

          Imagine, a new tax is introduced, so the tax software has to be changed.
          Either that, or it can contract another company to write the whole software from scratch.
          Which one will be more likely? What will this do to competition?
          • > Imagine, a new tax is introduced, so the tax
            > software has to be changed.

            Well, yeah. The capability for future modification certainly is a good idea when choosing software. I wouldn't get software without it. Ultimately, though, that can be a matter of outright competition... it won't need to be mandated.

            An example: When I was a drafter, I used AutoCAD because the software is supremely flexible. It is built with customization in mind and includes a built-in programming language. There's really not much that needed doing I couldn't get it to do. Because of their flexible design, I didn't need to see the source for AutoCAD to implement really major customizations.

            (Which is a good thing, since Autodesk isn't exactly a fan of software libre. If AutoCAD qualifies by Mr. Perens' standards, it's just barely... their primary format [DWG] is mostly closed, but they have another [DXF] that is mostly open.)

            The problem you're addressing isn't one of open/closed source exactly, but of flexiblity. The necessary flexibility could be gained through open source, or by clever software design that supports a great deal of user-definable action. Software that can be customized on the fly by an advanced user, without having to muck around in the source code, is good enough for government work. :)

            By all means, the government should not choose software that sucks. I completely agree that inflexibility begets suckage. On the other hand, it should also be recognized that open source is not the only way to gain flexibility, and thus avoid sucking.

            However desirable flexible software is, mandating flexibility of design (open source or not) is probably not necessary. It'll sort itself out without much help.
            • AutoCAD might be quite flexible, but you can't do taxes with it :).

              > The necessary flexibility could be gained through open source, or by clever software design that supports a great deal of user-definable action.

              This are some problems.
              First, there is a limit to flexibility. You can't think of everything.
              Second, flexibility means complexity. This complexity results in higher costs and lower performance.
              A highly indebted goverment elected for 5 years, would not make a wise decision paying tenfold amount of money for a higher flexibity.

              Lastly, this reminds me of the "second system syndrome". Makeing highly flexible software most often results in a desaster.

              Among the most major reasons [cox.net] causing a project to fail is
              unclear requirements.
              Overly amibitous is another.

              In case of the tax software, the requirement would change from handling all taxes to handling all possible taxes.
              I think this could qualify as unclear requirement.

              To make a reference to a different country than the US.
              In Germany, the federal and local police wanted to replace the old software (from the 70s IIRC) with a more flexible system.
              The resulting software, being overdue and breaking the budget, responded to a simple query in several second.

              Mandating flexibility by design could actually mean mandating two of the top reasons of project failure.
          • This is not about software features. This is about open standards. The
            main point is to not lock the Government into proprietary products that
            would not allow them to choose a competing product. Being a programmer, I
            for one do not want to see my Government locked into M$ and their
            proprietary nightmare. Look at M$ Office. They have a closed source on the
            document types and thus, the Government could not switch to a competitor
            for office productivity without fear of loosing tons of documents. Sure,
            there are other office suites that can read M$'s office docs, but not very
            reliably. I think the main point is, The Government should only be allowed
            to use applications and systems that use fully open standards. This will
            give the Government of the USA the ability to choose which product is right
            for the job. Be that product Open source or a proprietary product. We
            cannot let our Government get locked into the proprietary "Gates" of hell.
            After all, it is OUR tax dollars that good ole Gates is stealing by locking
            the Gov into their proprietary junk and using non-competitive tactics.
    • Whether it's cars or software, lack of openness has its price. You can take your car to an independant mechanic or do maintenance and repairs yourself. Under the Magnusson Moss act, car manufacturers cannot void your warranty solely because you used aftermarket parts or did not get your car serviced at the dealer. With proprietary software, the vendor has a complete monopoly on maintenance and bugfixes.
    • Re:Isn't this... (Score:3, Insightful)

      I don't buy cars based on what brand I like, or how their business practices are.

      • Would you buy a car with the hood welded shut?
      To follow on the oft-repeated analogy: would you buy a car with the hood welded shut and an EULA that required you to only have it serviced at the manufacturer's shop, threatened you with jail for fixing problems yourself, and comitted you to paying a premium if you replaced the car with a competetor's model?

      • Vehicles are, essentially open-source.
      • the hood's not welded shut
      • We can move from make to another at will.
      • We can change whatever parts of them we want -- or go to the manufacturer for 'proper' repairs.
      • If we can figure out how to put a GM engine into a Ford chassis, we won't have to worry about either company suing us.
      • we don't have to drive in different lanes depending on what model car we have
      • A city car won't maliciously 'seize up' if we take it 'off road' on a flat piece of desert.
      We often quietly put up with these sorts of things from software vendors. They call it 'standard industry practice'. We (customers) are the ones who pay through the nose. If the automobile (or most other) industries did the same things, we'd have lynch mobs out.
  • by banky (9941) <.moc.gnihsaboruen. .ta. .ggerg.> on Thursday August 29, 2002 @04:42PM (#4166127) Homepage Journal
    The way this works is, you mandate formats, not applications.

    So you say, "all forms must be in PDF, all email via normal RFC822 mail (MIME allowed), documents in some-or-other format".

    Who decides just what constitutes the "openness" of a format?

    It just sounds like the right feature list will "win", and you'll have to explain to the PHB (the gov't PHB, worst kind) that Microsoft's XML isn't open, and Exchange isn't the same as sendmail + Cyrus IMAPD.

    Unless I'm reading it wrong.
    • I think it's stupid to mandate this at all. They should be able to use the best product/format whatever for the job.
      • They should be able to use the best product/format whatever for the job.

        If the task includes making data available to the public, you could argue that open standards are required for something to be considered the "best for the job." How is it doing it's job if 30% of your audience can't afford the software required to access the data?
        • by Bruce Perens (3872) <bruce@perens.com> on Thursday August 29, 2002 @05:10PM (#4166374) Homepage Journal
          Also, consider whether or not government should be locking the people who have to deal with government into a particular software product, and what unfair preference this gives to the vendor of that product. I submit that open standards are always best for the job because they avoid that unfair bias - anyone can interoperate, anyone can compete.

          Bruce

          • What if people can't afford the computers or operating systems to read this "standard"?
            • Now you're positing a straw man. We're not discussing access to information. We're discussing access to information to the lowest common denominator. When talking about computer information systems, there's a blatant assumption that you have a computer.

              And for those who don't, there's the library down the street. Which is still grounds for making sure you have open standards for information dissemination.

              Or have I just been trolled?

              • I would think that a fair market with open standards would drive the price of a computer down as far as possible, so this initiative would help with digital divide issues - a little bit. But you are correct that access is a separate issue.

                Bruce

      • I think it's stupid to mandate this at all. They should be able to use the best product/format whatever for the job.

        In principle, you're right. However, the "job" in this case is very specific and very unique. The system must protect MY data, allow me full, unrestrained access to it (without having to purchase a license from some company first), its operation should be transparent to public scrutiny, and its maintainers must be accountable for these guarantees. These requirements significantly restrict the set of possible software systems that can even do the job, let alone do it well.

        Right, ideally we wouldn't HAVE to mandate this. However, current governments have shown that they cannot and will not fulfill the requirements above without a legal kick in the ass. Hence, the proposed legislation.
        • CrazyBrett, what government data is it that you need unrestrained access to or is this just another thing I should support because Microsoft is bad Linux is good? This is not really just some stunt to get the government to throw money at OSS instead? I was WAY off base.
          • Ok, so let's use an example. Gasoline. The government doesn't use some special brand of gasoline in their weapons of war (unless you call diesel special). No, they use relatively common fuels that 1) are cheap 2) are the same from every pump that dispenses said fuel, and not just from say, Shell's pumps.

            If we were to demand the same of our governments information, we'd want all documents in XML, with our imagines in TIFF or PNG or GIF or something. As opposed to all documents being patent restricted .GIF's and Microsoft Office .DOCs and .XLSs.

            I could care less what application they use to create those documents. As long as the files are open, I'm happy. Because say I want to use those images in a tiny little mapping computer. I surely don't want to embed WindowsXP in every single one I sell. No, I want to author my own lightweight application that uses the same data that you can with Adobe Photoshop at home...

        • If you request information from the government, say like Bill Gates police report, it is going to come to you in the 5000 year old industry standard paper format.
      • The proposal isn't saying to the government employees, "use this exact tool for the job". It's saying to the government employees, "As dissemators of government information to the people, making said information as open as possible is your job. So, yes, go ahead and use the right tool for the job - given that you remember that using a closed format doesn't really qualify as doing the job.
    • The way this works is, you mandate formats, not applications.

      Not quite...the format is not mandated, just the openness of the format. So, for example, if Microsoft were to produce full documentation (available free of charge) for the .doc file format, the state would be free to purchase copies of Microsoft Word for whatever price Microsoft agrees to. They would also be just as free to use OpenOffice which uses a completely different, yet still fully documented file format.
      • they also need to be available with no license restrictions, and no requirement for an NDA. This is, in fact, much more important than "free of charge".

        Microsoft have already used the "free of charge" loophole to publish some of their API's "free of charge", but with a NDA that forbids you to use them in GPL'ed code (not mentioning Samba with a word).

        So it is important to stress that the API's and ABI's should be both public and usable by everyone with no restrictions.
    • by J. J. Ramsey (658) on Thursday August 29, 2002 @04:56PM (#4166252) Homepage
      I would suggest two criteria for deciding whether a file format is really open:

      1) The file format should be completely documented

      2) There should be at least two different applications from two different suppliers that can both read and write the format.

      Criteria #2 would smoke out file formats that are badly documented, such as the MS Word file format, which vendors *still* have to reverse-engineer to get some semblance of real-life compatibility, even though a spec for the format exists.

    • The way this works is, you mandate formats, not applications


      Sure, but how do you expect to do that? There seems be any number of commitees and agencies that regulate things like traffic laws, public safety, pollution, economic policy, etc, etc...but where are our representatives?

      Lawyers and finance people regulate business and anti-trust laws(supposedly), the Fed hires economists with Phds to make economic policy etc...but can anyone name a single government appointed/empowered commitee of computer scientists?

      The only way you can make a "standard format" mandate is if you have:

      1) A commitee of qualified and un-biased experts making the decisions as to what should or should not be allowed.
      2) That commitee has to be empowered to enforce thier determination.

      As far as I can tell, and please someone correct me if I'm wrong, we have niether of these two things established in this country.

      What's the point of people like Bruce Perens saying what makes sense to almost all of us...if there's no infrastructure in place to make it a reality? Do you really think the governent cares two cents about what the IEEE thinks is "the right thing to do"? How do you expect this stuff to happen without representation in government? ...sorry if I sound cynical, but I'm honestly asking can anyone give a concrete example to the contrary?
      • I think all you really need is some rules on disclosure of file formats and intercommunication protocols. The disclosures must be licensed for royalty-free use, in a non-discriminatory fashion. So, if your file format is proprietary and you want to sell it to government, publish the file format. No committee necessary.

        Thanks

        Bruce

      • Well, the change is definitely not going to happen unless someone starts advocating it. It might as well be Bruce Perens to get the ball rolling.

    • You're not mandating the format. You're mandating that formats cannot be closed/proprietary. This does not mean "lowest common denominator". It means that if Microsoft decides to "embrace and extend", then Microsoft needs to open their extensions. It's up to competitors to write hooks to those extensions.

      You can still compete through "innovation" and "extension", but you can't lock your customers' data up in a proprietary format.

    • The problem here really is the definition of open. The MS-Office file formats could be called "open" because: [i] there is a published spec and [ii] there are multiple software packages that claim to both read and write them (WordPerfect Suite, OpenOffice, etc.)

      Now slashdotters will claim, correctly, that the spec is incomplete and constantly changing and that the other software packages aren't 100% compatible. But MS has mucho lobbying muscle and the "State Commission on Open File Formats" will approve MS-Office formats, trust me.

      "Sincere Choice" will become the "Sincere Status-Quo" pretty quickly.

      • >> Now slashdotters will claim, correctly, that the spec is incomplete and constantly changing...

        Doesn't XML represent a potential "open" data exchange tool that changes and grows about every 5 minutes?

        Isn't it grand that people affiliated with or paid by companies making money on open source are so disinterestedly helping the State of California save money?

        Don't try to mandate government purchases of any kind of software. A company selling open source is just as capable of ripping off California as is Oracle.
    • Being in government, I have to communicate with you all whether you are in some state or local government organization or just a Joe Blow citizen who needs to interact with us. Each one of you/them uses different software to communicate or share their data with us. While Microsoft is a fairly wide spread standard, no one dominates at 100%. If we are to communicate with you all, we would have to buy a dozen or more word processors, spreadsheets, databases and all their versions (DOS/Apple/Unix/Windows/etc.). We can't do it!!! We do not have the tax dollars to buy all those licences (and computers) and put them on everybody's desktop.

      What have we done? We have bought the top two (maybe three) and we communicate using via Wintel PCs. What we see lacking is not the features but the ability for one application to read another's format. Open and highly documented formats would go a long way in helping us to communicate with you all. Neither of which are the aspirations of proprietary software houses.

      However, if they could interchange formats, the goal would become one of designing user friendlier systems. For instance, I love to parse data with Excel. Excel makes it so easy. I hate to do it with Lotus 123. I have to enter something that looks like Fortran format code and I have to work at getting the format structure right. I love to be able to see where an error occurs when I use WordPerfect's Reveal Codes (so I can easily correct it). There are so many fine features in so many different types of software packages, no one application and no one software house has them all.

      I doubt that the proprietary software houses would consent to open standards and documentation. It's not in their business models and egos to cooperate. That leaves Open Source as the only viable solution. Would Open Source eventually incorporate all the best of the best features in one or two applications? I hope so. Until then the Sensible Choice is to use those packages that make me productive and those that allow me to communicate with you via computer.
      • by Bruce Perens (3872) <bruce@perens.com> on Thursday August 29, 2002 @10:58PM (#4168045) Homepage Journal
        I doubt that the proprietary software houses would consent to open standards and documentation. It's not in their business models and egos to cooperate.

        Has everybody forgotten that there is such a thing as a customer, and that all of the money of the proprietary software houses comes from that customer? People seem to take a vendor-centric view of software by default. Why should we even care about the vendor's ego and business model? Our software budget does not exist to fund that vendor, it exists to procure the software we want, using our own criteria, not that of the vendor.

        Bruce

  • ... I can almost see the creators of the DSSA proposal and Perens shaking hands. No-one thought that DSSA could go through... but first you have to propose something, that twists things to the extreme - and do it seriously - and then land in something like:

    "The good thing is, California's lawmakers won't have to pay a dime to anyone to formulate the policy, since Perens has already done that job."

    I will eat my (win)socks if this was not the plan from the beginning. Fortunately, no-one will ever know, if it was not :)

    • by Bruce Perens (3872) <bruce@perens.com> on Thursday August 29, 2002 @04:58PM (#4166266) Homepage Journal
      You must be aware that trying to lead this community is like herding cats. Do you really think that there would have been that much coordinated activity among so many people with differing goals and viewpoints, and in a Machevelian way? No, sorry. I actually could not get Red Hat to sign on to Sincere Choice, Tiemann had alread decided on his direction.

      And you credit me with more political sophistication than I have, so far.

      Bruce

      • > And you credit me with more political sophistication than I have, so far.

        ;) conspiracy theories make good stories. Seriously, the Sincere Choice [sincerechoice.org] is a masterpiece - the best part of it is that I believe it is easily adoptable for other purposes than state/government use --> companies could(should?)(already do?) base their decisions on these principles. They make sense - not only ideologically but businesslogically too - , and I am hoping policiticians could make sense, atleast every 42nd day.

      • And you credit me with more political sophistication than I have, so far.

        Hummm... "Sophistication" implies that you understand the subject involved. In my book, people who claim to "understand" politics are standing on the same ground as those who claim to "understand" women. No, I don't think they really understand what is going on. Rather, they have deduced a large enough set of stimulous-response reactions in order to influence the process in question... at least part of the time. Some of this skill may be innate, but most is learned by trial and (sometimes painful) error.

        Bruce, sophistication or no, it seems to me you have a pretty good handle on what's going on, and can see more than you may give yourself credit for.

      • Do you really think that there would have been that much coordinated activity among so many people with differing goals and viewpoints, and in a Machevelian way? No, sorry. I actually could not get Red Hat to sign on to Sincere Choice, Tiemann had alread decided on his direction.

        I understand why Tiemann didn't want to sign on to Sincere Choice, but it is still sad, because I donøt think they have a chance of getting anywhere with their proposal. Sincere Choice is much better and have a much better chance of becomming reality.

    • I think one of the largest problems with these ideas is they are based on true merit. From what I've seen in both the corporate and government world, that is not the deciding factor. Lobbying and WhoUknoW(tm) are the key factors. Having visible figures such as Mr. Perens, ESR, and Richard Stallman help a lot, but sometimes it hard to compete with the large lobbying budgets of corporate America.
  • Terrific (Score:2, Insightful)

    by bytesmythe (58644)
    The article mentions a great point, which is that no government agency should use proprietary formatted commercial software. This means no more MS Word docs, Excel spreadsheets, etc., unless they are saved as RTFs and CSVs.

    I would love to see some work done on open standard file formats for common office applications, such as word processing, spreadsheets (that include formulas!), presentation, charting, calendars, small databases (like for FoxPro or Access), etc.

    I know there are open source apps for these things, but you still have to translate the files from one format to another. Ideally, a single XML standard would exist that allows all the applications to use each other's files.

    • Re:Terrific (Score:5, Insightful)

      by Bruce Perens (3872) <bruce@perens.com> on Thursday August 29, 2002 @05:01PM (#4166287) Homepage Journal
      MS Word format would be fine if they specified it completely and didn't want any royalty for usin it.

      Bruce

      • True, but Microsoft opening up their format is about as likely as getting hit in the foot by a meteorite.

        Well, maybe that was a bad example...

        I do think that solution would work equally well, but, barring some kind of court order, it ain't gonna happen. I have checked around before for open document standards, but never found anything that seemed poised to take off. Do you know of any progress being made in the open document standards arena?

        bytesmythe
        • Actually, I think MS does document some of their file formats. If OpenOffice could track the MS Office file formats reliably and royalty-free, I'd have no problem with MS Office use in government.

          Now, there may be patents and other gotchas in the existing MS documents, as with CIFS.

          Bruce

          • i agree with you 100%

            BUT

            If you're going to get ANYONE beyond /. types (read: PHBs) to understand what you're talking about, you're site needs to give some concrete examples of what you're speaking of. You are going to have to name names and point at the naked emperor.

            For Example:

            "Open File/Protocol Formats: File and protocol formats should be open, correctly documented, and have no charge for their use.

            Currently, some popular file formats which do not fall under these caveats are Microsoft Word .doc files (incompletely/incorrectly documented file format) and the SMB/CIFS file sharing protocol (incompletely and incorrectly documented, and recently deemed that use of this format outside of the Win32 API is prohibited).

            Open File and protocol formats would allow one to use an application, such as OpenOffice, to read/write/edit Microsoft Word .doc files with 100% accuracy. They would also allow non-proprietary browsers and servers, such as SAMBA, to interoperate on par with Microsoft Windows clients on Microsoft File Sharing servers"

            Until its spelled out in large letters with crayon - you're really talking around the issue, and you're not bringing the problem to the focal point.

            If Microsoft is really for Software Choice (i'm sorry, that just cracks me up every time i say it) - then you have to give them a 5-foot thick carbon-fibre cube of a target to try to shoot holes in.. Without naming specifics, you're giving them the sky. They will (and are) talking around your points.

            MS's life depends 3 legs - Windows, Office, and Exchange. Lets work on one of the 3 legs - maybe that will finally begin the toppeling of the monopoly.

            I also agree that if some company is stupid enough to BUY Office - let them.. I have no problem with that. The problem is that if I work with them, i must have it too. And that is what I find objectionable
      • Re:Terrific (Score:3, Interesting)

        by linuxwrangler (582055)
        I am all for this in spirit. A few comments:

        Formats/protocols are most important where exchange of data or interconnections take place. I'm not sure that, say, Oracle would need to make its internal file formats public as long as the interface to the outside world was standard and any client programs developed/purchased adhered to that standard (SQL92 as an example). As long as you have the freedom to dump your data from one system to another you have the freedom to change at (relatively) low cost.

        Similarly, the biggest problem with Word/Excel/etc. formats comes when the government expects you to purchase single-source vendor-specific products that support those proprietary formats as the cost of doing business with the state.

        The public would be up in arms if the state decided to only allow General Motors cars into government office parking spaces. The effect of using proprietary formats and protocols is little different.

        We know that vendors, especially Microsoft, will interpret things so the result is the complete opposite of whatever the government/courts intend so in addition to your comments on "completely specified" I would add a time frame - ie. "1 year following publication" or "following wide industry adoption" or possibly just limit formats those with an accepted RFC.

        Also, the specs must be completely released for permanent, no-strings, royalty-free use. You don't want a format to become widely used and then have the "owner" retract permission to use it royalty free (see GIF, MP3, JPG, etc).
      • MS Word format would be fine if they specified it completely and didn't want any royalty for usin it.

        Wayull, this is sort of an impossibility. Don't even worry about it, unless MS suggests it as a counter. The Microsoft Office formats allow any COM objects to be included, by calling system libraries to place them on the page. This means anything that uses COM in Windows can be in DOC format.

        Documentation of the DOC format is equivalent to documentation of the Windows DCOM !! This target is moving, changes, etc., and includes a LOT of the system libraries. It was intentionally written to be difficult to duplicate.

        But, Bruce, the other place you missed the boat (at least as Hal Plotkin wrote about it), is the other MAJOR reason to use open source in government - use of it in programs that exchange data across networks. The use of open source allows choice in security audits of the data - of OUR data. Proprietary solutions rely on the vendor to check the security. With open source, the government can easily do their own audit, or commission a private firm to do it, or trust their vendor.

        Also, the use of open source will prevent squirming around the use of open standard formats. If the code used to read/write the format is open, then the format is open and documented.

        Don't sell the government short. Open source solutions provide security checking assurances, and standardized document/data format assurances, that are simply not available in closed software. Such a solution should be preferred, ceteris paribus.
      • Just got a question... how do we know? I mean, we obviously won't get to look at the source for Word, so how can we prove that a provided specification is accurate?
  • "Look on my Works, ye Mighty, and despair!"

    Appologies to Ozymandias.
  • ROI (Score:3, Informative)

    by gokubi (413425) on Thursday August 29, 2002 @04:48PM (#4166192) Homepage
    I agree that legislating interoperability would go a long way to fixing the problem. How does anyone propose to get legislation to this effect?

    The Internet/Computing industry gave $16,138,743 [opensecrets.org] in the 2002 election cycle. If there is one thing that these people understand, it's Return On Investment.

  • "Bruce Perens disagrees with both sides in this debate. By striking a middle ground between the two, he's come up with a far more elegant solution. Unlike the most radical elements in the open-source movement, Perens maintains that a complete ban on state purchases of proprietary closed-source software isn't necessary."

    But Michael Sims of Slashdot disagrees [slashdot.org], and actually accuses Tim O'Reilly of being an industry whore for his "middle ground" position:

    "O'Reilly seems to be promoting the agenda of Microsoft's Software Choice campaign."

    Michael, Bruce, you both read Slashdot and have posting privelges. Here's your SteelCage : have at it. Is Bruce an industry whore or a visionary? Inquiring minds want to know...

    • From the article:

      "Perens maintains that a complete ban on state purchases of proprietary closed-source software isn't necessary."

      Well, I would guess an actual BAN wouldn't be necessary. If any software could use the data, chances are pretty high that open source software would become the norm rather than the exception. We only use MS Word because everyone else does. If everyone moves to a format that ANY word processor can use, I guarantee Microsoft is going to lose a motherlode of license revenue.

      I imagine if anyone did come up with an open standard file format, Microsoft wouldn't bother supporting it. Or better yet, they'd make the xlator module buggy so it corrupts files saved in other formats. You know, kind of like it does when you save as HTML. ;)

      bytesmythe
    • Simple question besides posting to /. what the hell has Michael [google.com] ever done?
      Bruce [perens.com] on the other hand. So I think Bruce wins.
    • "I can't see a difference... can you see a difference?"

      Still seems like business is thrashing about trying to find a long term viable money generating plan for OSS, and that's where the majority of the conflict comes in. Governments are just other types of businesses (often very poorly run ones, but still businesses) which just seem to have different budgetary and regulatory constraints than 'normal' businesses.

      I dunno if which side of the shill fence I'd fall on, but I think forcing anyone to accept either an all-microsoft or all-OSS solution is inane. Pragmatism with a little forward thinking should be the rule, with a heavy emphasis on interoperability.

      Is that so hard? Perhaps not if you're an individual or small business without lobbyists or other special interest groups fucking with your policy, but when you get bigger...
  • by Raccroc (238757) on Thursday August 29, 2002 @05:02PM (#4166308)
    Here is the problem I see with mandating file formats "open"...

    What stops MS from making the default (in Gov. Editions anyway) Save feature in Word to be .rtf? They can then say (even with "some" legitimacy perhaps) that Word supports open standards.

    I'm sure they'd figure out how to support open standards with most of thier suites, knowing full well not many would actually use them.
    • I think you misunderstand this would mandate that the goverment produce things in open formats. It would mean that they *would* save things as .rtf or plain text or whatever. It would mean that they open formats *would* be used.
    • For most people's word processing, .rtf would be more than sufficient. It'd make wading through those annoying word-generated emails a lot easier.
      • I disagree, With Government, there are many A law document, most consist of very complex formatting and styles that are not availble under RTF format.

        My $0.02

        • Hmmm... I've seen some of those legal nightmares of which you speak, and while plain jane RTF might not handle it well, plain jane HTML would easily be able to... or if HTML was found lacking, a commonly accepted SMGL DTD would be in order.

          Mind you, the vast vast vast majority of documents generated in any office (government, law, or otherwise) are simple memos, notes, and casual correspondance. Standardizing on a DTD for official documents isn't too insane, and standardizing on .rtf for 'unofficial' things would be fine.

          That's all blue sky though. Most offices don't have enough techno savvy to understand what rtf or SGML is, let alone implement it in a uniform fashion.
    • Well, they obviously do support open standards with their suites. Word supports rtf (although I don't think that one's truly open), plain text, and html, all of which are open. The problem is that most people choose to use .doc, which isn't open. Supporting open standards is fine. Why shouldn't someone be able to use MS Word to read and write text files? Just because it can handle .doc, doesn't mean it handles .rtf any worse.

      So long as only open formats are used, using Word and its ilk isn't going to be a problem. And that's what this is about. I think it'd be great if MS started shipping "Word for Governments" with rtf as the default. I wouldn't be surprised if the practice spread in to the private sector too.
      • Word supports ... html

        I don't know what your experience is, but I have never been able to get any version of Word to emit valid [htmlhelp.com] HTML for any document, even the empty document. To say that Word supports HTML seems to me to be somewhat of an exaggeration, especially in the context of open standards.

    • I administer a small number of computers for a university research lab. We have a site-license for MS Office, which is what most of our researchers use. I configure all of our machines so that Word writes *.rtf by default. I haven't heard any complaints from any group members, or from my professor. I don't think they even noticed. I also use as much free software as I possibly can on group machines, and teach my group members how to use it.

      If you administer computers for your company, change the default filetypes in MS Office to open ones. Most users won't even notice. Even fewer will complain. Those who absolutely HAVE to use *.doc can go ahead. But they'll be only a small percentage of your users.

      I don't have authority to mandate that all of my group members use OpenOffice.org. But I do what I can here and there to further the cause and to prevent us from being locked into a proprietary prison [ofb.biz].

    • You've got it all wrong. The primary issue is exactly that the government should use only open formats and standards. It's not enough that the tool they use is capable of using an open format - under Sincere Choice, the government should would never use .doc (unless MS made it completely open). The issues you talk about doesn't exist. The whole point is to let the users use whatever tool they think is the best tool for the job.

  • Aww hell, why not? I told you so [slashdot.org].
  • The Gate is down.

    No comments and /.ed already/
  • Open Formats (Score:5, Insightful)

    by paladin_tom (533027) on Thursday August 29, 2002 @05:14PM (#4166390) Homepage

    I agree with Perens' demand for open document formats. So long as the format is open, I have choice in what application I use. I can choose to read a PDF file, for example, with gv or Acrobat Reader. The competition comes from who can make the product more convenient to use.

    When formats are closed, then one product must dominate. This is what we've already seen happen with MS Office, and we're seeing again with Internet Explorer, since MS is leveraging its market dominance to saturate the market with non-standard HTML (ie the Microsoft Document Object Model), thereby locking everyone into using IE.

    • I actually take issue to the government using PDF forms; to actually save the data on a form, Joe Sixpack must purchase Acrobat! It is not a functional electronic form without that minimal level of support, so we loose some level of access to our government. Really, who has a (working) typewriter anymore?
  • Looks like Bruce [perens.com] came up with a good, common sense idea again. Sincere Choice [sincerechoice.com] is not only just a good idea for the government, but a good idea for computing as a whole. It makes sense from both the business point of view and a developer's point of view.

    It's a good start and people can support it by really trying to only use open standards. You don't need to go to either extreme to make a point (either proprietary or free software extremes); open source and specifically open standards give an excellent compromise between proprietary and free software. It will give an even playing field and promote competition, so that everyone will really have a choice. Or if you don't like it you can always write your own software to meet the open standards.

    Actual competition in the software / computer industry? Well with open standards it's much closer to being a posibility.

  • I love the analogy Mr. Plotkin makes near the end, that letting software vendors lock the state into proprietary systems is similar to letting construction firms install their own toll bridges on freeways. Hits the nail right on the head.

    As for his closing question, "Will our legislators do their [job]?" Unfortunately the answer is another question: are they doing it now?
  • The right question is: why do government projects cost more, take longer and fail more frequently than private sector projects?

    The reason is that they mandate long discredited project management techniques. A for profit company that took ten years and $100 million for a mission critical system, and then failed to deliver, would have been driven out of business by its competitors.

    I could recommend XP (Extreme Programming, not the Microsoft OS, which has nothing to do with development,) but that's undoubtedly too extreme for government. However, just requiring the contractor to ship meaningful results every three months, instead of the complete system after three years, would probably work wonders.

    John Roth
    Any opinions expressed in this post are genuine, certified opinions.
  • Why not make a small grant to create a set of open file format standards. Once that is done, demand that all software purchases support the standard format. This way, any company can implement it and there's no issue of "playing favorites."

    If MS does a better job, they deserve to get the contract. If some one else does a better, that's fine too. Trying to force MS to do something is both stupid, pointless and ultimately will fail. If it looks like there's any favoritism, any rules about software purchases won't get very far. On the other hand, if there is a solid file standard, it looks bad for software vendors because their motives are more apparent. Let's make it open for everyone to compete. Not just "we hate MS and love OSS."

  • I think the SincereChoice principles are the correct ones. Furthermore, they are sufficient. There's no need to mandate purchase of Open Source alternatives, when a SincereChoice will naturally lead to choosing them (where they exist).

    Say there are two competing products that meet the interoperability requirements of SincereChoice. One is Open Source, the other is proprietary secret source, but with interfaces and formats suitably defined to qualify for the SincereChoice requirements.

    If I pick the proprietary one, then next year when there's an update that fixes the security bugs, but the updated version does not meet SincereChoice requirements, what's gonna happen? If the law doesn't let the purchaser buy the update anyway, they'll have to switch.

    So forseeing that, the purchaser will pick the Open Source version because they know the security fixes will be available without changes that prevent update purchases under the SincereChoice conditions.

    Of course, if the SincereChoice law allows purchase of non-compliant updates to a compliant original purchase, then this logic does not hold, but then the policy is a sham anyway.

  • The article on sfgate implies that the way a format is defined as "open" is if the source code that read/writes it is available (although a quick scan of the Sincere Choice website doesn't say that)...I don't like this because a) it gets into a murky area of releasing source, which will make some companies resist it, and for no reason, because b) having a real doc is better than source code anyway, since the source code may not be compilable on its own, may be obscure, etc.

    Also, Bruce Perens is not the first person to write about using government buying power to require open file formats...I'm probably not the first either [osopinion.com] however (although my article was discussed on LinuxToday [linuxtoday.com]...where're you getting your ideas from Bruce?!?)

    - adam

    • Adam,

      One thing that I do a lot is write down things that much of the community already knows - in a way that I hope is accessable to others who have not yet thought those issues through. Certainly the Open Source Definition and Debian Social Contract reflect what were common sentiments in the community at the time they were written,, and they lean heavily on RMS' work. The same goes for the Sincere Choice platform.

      I'm not conscious of having used your ideas, but I certainly do read a lot of comment on Slashdot and elsewhere when forming a synthesis.

      I'd encourage you to continue to post your ideas and stir up discussion on these issues - I can't be the only evangelist.

      Thanks

      Bruce

      • Didn't mean to accuse you of stealing anything...someday I hope to get off my rear and make the Open Data Format Initiative into a website, links to relevant articles, new discussions, membership, etc. Basically what you've done with Sincere Choice. It's impressive you can whip up a new organization like that.

        - adam

      • I don't know if you've talked to politicians about this...I talked to some Washington State legislators about my idea and got mixed results [osopinion.com]; unfortunately, the Democrat, who I know personally and might actually consider the idea, has been redistricted and now represents the district with Microsoft in it, instead of just an adjacent district. So sponsoring such a bill might be political suicide.

        - adam

  • This exactly the middle-of-the-road approach that we need.
    I have no doubt that open-source software will blow away proprietary competition, I've experienced that over and over again myself.
    But there are some cases where open-source apps don't exist, or are not up to speed yet.
    This middle-of-the-road approach is perfect for opening up closed gov't doors. And for motivating developers to notch-up their efforts too.
    By not forcing the gov to take an all-or-nothing 'leap into the void', sincere choice should succeed where the DSSA initiative will fail.
  • The Open Source business model has difficulty competing against proprietary formats and protocols, so now it is looking for some legislation.

    • The proprietary business model has even more difficulty competing against proprietary formats and protocols. There used to be more word processing programs than just MS Word and maybe WordPerfect. The bodies of Microsoft competitors are strewn along the information highway. They made perfectly good products that their users wanted, but those users were driven to MS products simply to be able to exchange files with other users of the dominant vendor.

      Bruce

      • I disagree with the idea of forcing a company to open proprietary systems to everyone as a condition for selling products to the government.

        I do believe that the goverment should be required to use open formats and protocols when dealing with its citizens and vendors. Sending or requiring a document in a proprietary format effectively endorses and mandates its use.

        The government certainly does not need legislation to allow it to require data in a particular format. Just try to get through the DMV with a signature on the wrong line.

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