The Economist on open source
By patrickf on Oct 23, 2006
Back in March, I read formerly Iraq-war supporting British weekly The Economist's report on open source, which wrapped up with a quote from no less an authority on open source than, er, Microsoft's Bill Hilf:
“We have quite a few programs in Microsoft where we take software and distribute it to the community in an open-source way,” gushes Bill Hilf, director of platform technology strategy at the company. Open source could enjoy no more flattering tribute than that.
I disagree: rather more flattering to open source, surely, is Microsoft's lobbying against open source at the European Commission through the Initiative for Software Choice (ISC) (sic). The ISC (sic) is actually comprised of "more than" 280 companies, united by "concerns...that policy makers, through government procurement policies, research funding or standards efforts, may seek to favor one software development model over another." Members include Alnafitha Information Technology (Saudi Arabia), the fantastically-named Baltic Amadeus (Lithuania), Rediversa (El Salvador), and Autodesk, EDS, Intel and Microsoft Corp (all USA). They wrote on the 10th October to the European Commission to offer "added insight into the narrow role governments play in promoting software development".
One public sector IT offical they need not have concerns over, is Richard Steel of Newham Borough Council, London. According to him, "Open source is a bit of a red herring. It's just a piece of software at the end of the day." Well, it is certainly a piece of software at the start of the day. By the end of the day, hopefully, it is a production installation. But perhaps by the end of the week it is, in fact, some unforseen license costs. And by the end of the month, an expensive customisation delivered by the vendor. And by the end of the support contract, a lock-in to a a vendor with pricing power over you. And by the end of system life, it may be a relinquished control over your technological roadmap. Anyway, it isn't for me to tell Mr Steel his business, it certainly sounds like he has done well for Newham Borough, and, as he says, "I don't want to be risking new technology." As for security concerns, well, "I have technical people to worry about that," declared an apparently insouciant Mr Steel.
But back to The Economist, where last week I read this piece, about the inefficacy of certain voting machines to be used in the upcoming mid-term elections in the United States.
In September three scientists at Princeton University got hold of the most popular touch-screen model [of voting machine] and took it and its software to bits. They found serious flaws allowing a competent hacker to infect the machine with a program to transfer votes from one candidate to another. Such a change could be undetectable without a recount (assuming one were possible), and the program could be introduced into the machine far in advance by anyone having access to the machine's memory-card reader for as little as a minute ... Voting-machine companies make things worse by keeping their software secret: were it published, security experts would be able to assess it and recommend fixes.
The remedy to these security problems?
open access to machine software.
Here we have the free-market, anti-intervention, small-government Economist, advocating government procurement policites should favour open source software in procurement policies.
An increasingly shrill ISC expresses a view that the European Commission is "intolerant to opposing comments that do not fall in line with the Commission's agenda, and thus a closed process has ensued which clearly limits the input from dissenting, or diverging points of view". Including the point of view, it seems, that governments should not prefer software which offers better hope of safeguarding the democratic process.
ps. the views expressed here, not to mention the sardonic tone, are not necessarily those of my employer