It's time for government IT purchasers to start taking open source solutions seriously.
The Australian Democrats have a draft bill on the table which will make it mandatory for public authorities making decisions about the procurement of computer software to have regard to the principle that wherever practicable open source software should be used in preference to proprietary software. Government IT purchases, at all levels, are to a large extent determined by the latest available, rather than what is needed to do the job.
It is time to take control of the IT debate. Spending billions of dollars to maintain one private company's business model could be a waste of the increasingly rare taxpayer dollar. The way to prevent this is for governments to consider all options in IT supply and support, and to require all vendors who wish to participate in the government software procurement programs to be able to show that their software products support open document and data formats and protocol standards. Governments should insist on the use of open, documented and interoperable file formats and data communication protocols.
A recent Queensland report suggests that most computer users will use only 20 of the more than 4000 functions available in Microsoft Office. This is hardly a compelling reason for upgrading. Upgrading applications requires upgrading operating systems. As operating systems and programs get more complex the physical components must also be upgraded - more RAM, more megahertz and so on. And this is all too often for something that most users do not need, use or even know exists.
This is made worse when a lack of support for previous versions may make data unrecoverable. When agencies surrender control over the data formats and the protocol standards to proprietary companies it is these supply companies that dictate future purchases. Interoperability at the proprietary level means continued purchase of that proprietary company's formats and protocols.
Currently, ceasing support for programs and operating systems forces the upgrade path. For example, at the same time that support for the NT operating system was dropped, a flurry of new security measures arose. With no support, any security conscious organisation would be forced to upgrade, regardless of its needs. A simple patch may be all that is required. Control over the basics of the system should be vested in public and not proprietary interests (especially from a single vendor).
A more appropriate system of IT purchase would be to assess the needs of the users, not the abilities of the program. For example, as an experiment in my Perth electorate office, we assessed the task requirements and found that in this situation a Linux-based computer running Open Office was more than sufficient for our needs. It could not do all the things that its proprietary competitors could; however, in our experience, these were not used. Adding packages from those freely available from free software (open source) sites fulfilled all the requirements of the office.
Software which meets the needs of the user should be the way of the future in government IT purchases.
Senator Brian Greig is the IT spokesperson for the Australian Democrats
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