Akari Sano is a first year law student at Osgoode Hall and is taking the Legal Values: Challenges in Intellectual Property course.
Open Source Software, the next vendor lock in?
A recent CBC article stated the federal government is seeking tenders on information about free software for the first time. It quoted Open Source software (OSS) will be considered. Two issues arose from this article for me. The article cited various reasons why the government has only started to consider OSS now. One reason for the delay, that licensees are restricted in their choice of complementary software, no longer applies given the recent advances within the Open Source community. Non- interoperability should not be a barrier anymore. The other concern is the government is seeking information on OSS, assuming it is free. But is OSS really free?
The article is correct in that most traditional proprietary software is incompatible with other brands. One of the reasons OSS has not been incorporated into some environments is due to lack of interoperability with programs already in place. In addition, the licensee would not be able to use other brands as part of the license agreement. This is a way for the manufacturer to ensure that their products are continually purchased for upgrades and maintenance. Essentially proprietary programs have shut OSS out, and locked in the licensee.
Microsoft released its Interoperability Principles on Feb. 21, 2008. Principle III: Data Portability is particularly interesting : “Once customers use one software product to store their data, they should be able to subsequently access that data in a form that permits its use in other software products.” Microsoft will also use a program similar to OSS called Open Format, which will be available to developers without requiring a license or royalty or other fees. Microsoft writes this will foster continued improvement and facility for third party product development. For OSS proponents, this means programmers have permission to create compatible programs. This is a significant commitment from Microsoft to Open Source. If the OSS community uses this opportunity to its fullest, it will essentially negate the vendor lock in argument. OSS programs can complement already established systems in organizations. Infiltration into the government is now possible.
How free is free?
The other barrier to the widespread use of OSS has been the cost of the program itself. This may be the bigger reason limiting its appeal to organizations such as the government and the public sector. When OSS is downloaded, it is not a nicely packaged program such as Microsoft Office. Instead it is a source code that is unique, needs customization for the particular organization’s use, and requires multiple upgrades just for maintenance. OSS requires strong technical skills on a regular basis and that costs money. In addition, the more a program becomes customized, it begins to decrease the wider community’s ability, and motivation to collaborate on it. Why would people work on a source code so unique that it is inapplicable to anyone else but that particular user? Thus the more tailored a program becomes, reliance on a dedicated computer support system becomes greater.
OSS’s fundamental concepts of interoperability, not charging royalties, and collaboration with the wider Open Source community can be questioned. This begs the question, are you now not locked into OSS? Furthermore, is OSS any different or better than the traditional proprietary software?