Open up: State open-source effort might force vendors to change




Rhode Island

are nurturing an effort that might be the catalyst for widespread deployment of
open-source software for state and local governments.

The Government Open Code Collaborative already has released a half dozen
sets of open-source code and is poised to develop e-government applications,
officials directing the initiative said.

"One of the things that has come up time and time again is the lack of
a really good open-source content management solution geared toward
e-government," said Jim Willis, the collaborative's technical chairman and
e-government director with the Rhode Island's Office of the Secretary of
State. "That's an arena where the collaborative can leave a permanent mark
in the landscape."

The ascent of open-source code could rock the government over the next
decade, forcing software makers to reassess how they sell to state and local
governments, and creating a demand for them to routinely develop open-source
code, experts said.

But everything needs a starting point, and analysts and industry experts
agree that e-gov software applications are ripe for an open-source approach.

"Those are great applications to standardize and allow everyone to
use," said Michael Fitzmaurice, an open-source specialist with GTSI Corp.,



"They could have a big return on investment in those areas."

Developing applications for e-gov transactions is fairly straightforward,
said Shawn McCarthy, senior analyst for government IT with market research firm
IDC of Framingham, Mass. "This seems like an easy threshold to cross," he

The collaborative's open-code repository was established in June 2004
by the two
New England

states and nearby universities to encourage sharing of computer code developed
by government entities. The repository is part of a move by state and local
governments to find ways around budget shortfalls and combat spiraling hardware
and software licensing costs.

Open-source software lets users review, modify and distribute programming
and operating system computer code. Unlike proprietary software, open-source
software gives users complete control of the operating system logic.

Time and effort

Although many analysts and industry observers applaud the effort, some
question whether the initiative can gain the support and widespread acceptance
needed to have a profound influence on the role of open-source software in
government technology. As the effort proceeds, state and local users will have
to overcome nagging resource and security challenges if they are to succeed with
open-source applications, they said.

The collaborative will need plenty of time if it is to succeed, McCarthy

"It's one of those things that has incredible potential, but the
question is whether it will ever reach a critical mass of participants to make
it work," he said.

State and local government has the "muscle and will" to make
open-source code applications succeed, said Jim Krouse, state and local market
analyst for market research firm Input Inc. of Reston, Va. "Governments have
the power to map out their own destiny," he said.

After spending nearly seven months getting the proper legal framework in
place for sharing open code, the collaborative is deciding which other sets of
applications to develop, said Peter Quinn, the collaborative's chairman and


' chief information officer.

Although some members of the initiative have shown a keen interest in
e-government software applications, the collaborative hasn't formally
determined its next step, Quinn said.

"We are looking at a broad brush" approach, he said. "We're
beating the bushes trying to get some more code."

The initiative was founded by a group of seven states and four
municipalities that have member status. More than 100 entities participate as
observers. The members can both deposit and withdraw code. A participating
observer, if it is a


government agency, can withdraw code at no cost, Quinn said.

Half the battle in developing open-source software for government is
getting the right people to the table, Willis said.

"It's amazing how many people want to do collaborative development
but just don't know where to start with it," he said. "We've given some
thought to that framework, and hopefully that is enough for it to take root."

A collaborative approach is essential for such an effort to succeed,
because of the time and resources it requires, said Andrea Di Maio, a research
vice president with market research and consulting firm Gartner Inc. of



"No authority can develop open-source applications alone," he said.
"For that model to work, you must have a community of developers that cuts
across different cities and states."

The largest software application available through the initiative is
RSSonate, which uses Really Simple Syndication feeds to let citizens access
real-time data on anything on a government Web site, Willis said.

"We made a big investment in time and mental bandwidth developing
it," he said.

Other available applications help users file notices and minutes of open
meetings, display large lists on Web sites, monitor system and network-delivered
services for availability and work from a virtual law office.  

Although the collaborative isn't allowing private sector companies to
participate in the effort, it doesn't preclude them from donating open-source
code to the repository and establishing themselves as subject matter experts in
a particular area, Quinn said.

"If you have a compelling application, and people find out about it,
then you probably would make more money over time than you ever could marketing
it" to each state or local government, he said. "It's a different
paradigm, that's all."

Software backlash

The push for open-source software applications is fed by "an immense
amount of displeasure" in the public and private sectors over having to buy
routine upgrades to enterprise resource planning software and other large
applications, Quinn said.

"Why in God's name do we go out and build the same [applications] at
horrendous prices?" Quinn said. When it comes to software upgrades, customers
rarely get a significant return on investment, he said.

The large software companies are watching to see how efforts such as the
collaborative unfold in coming years, McCarthy said.

"No one is nervous at this point," he said. "I don't think
anybody is worried about the next five years. Beyond that, who knows?"

Krouse sympathizes with the customer viewpoint. "No one wants to be
held hostage by the same company," he said.

However, he questions the ability of state and local government to
develop multiple open-source software applications when in the immediate future
they will be facing an acute shortage of technical expertise.

"I don't believe that collaboratives are going to be the end-all,"
Krouse said. "They are going to be a catalyst and probably end up doing some
valuable research, but I don't see them having the manpower to develop strong
code even if they do want to share it. ? It's more likely with the
continuing interest in open source that they will contract this work out."

McCarthy agreed that the impact on systems integrators would be minimal.

"I don't believe it will make any difference to the IT service
providers, because they make their money doing software installation and
customization," he said.

But GTSI's Fitzmaurice said that systems integrators need to get up to
speed with open source more quickly.

"Most are behind the curve, because their size works against them,"
he said. To compensate, they are partnering with smaller, more nimble companies
that specialize in open source, he said.

Most IT systems and software are adaptable to an open-source approach,
Fitzmaurice said. The only areas in which it wouldn't be practical are
financial systems for privacy and security reasons and desktops where the
economics of converting to open source would be impractical.

"Almost everything else in between could be a target for open
source," he said. 

About the Author

William Welsh is a freelance writer covering IT and defense technology.

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