What Happened to the Obama Open Source Initiative?
|Written by Gene Quinn
Patent Attorney & Founder of IPWatchdog
Zies, Widerman & Malek
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Posted: Mar 21, 2011 @ 6:29 pm
At least initially, President Obama was keenly interested in exploring how the United States government could use open source software rather than rely on proprietary software. President Obama was so interested in pursuing open source software solutions that on his second day in Office he asked Scott McNealy, a co-founder of Sun Microsystems, to lead his open source charge. In fact, President Obama reportedly asked McNealy to prepare a report on how the federal government could employ open source software, but as yet, some 26 months later there has been no mention of the report or across the board government adoption of open source software.
Open source advocates praised the fact that President Obama wanted to transition the U.S. government away from proprietary solutions and into open source, but now that the report has seemingly stalled and the White House has done little more than release open source Drupal code, what does the open source community have to show?
In fact, at the time President Obama picked McNealy to lead efforts to report on the feasibility of switching the government over to open source platforms as a way of saving money and not being beholden to proprietary solutions, many open source supporters were irritated by the Silicon Valley insider being chosen to spearhead government efforts. Of course, many in the tech community to embraced any movement toward open source, but here is what Ars Technica had to say, in part, about Obama’s decision to turn to McNealy:
Although Obama’s interest in open source looks like a promising sign that the incoming government is serious about reforming federal IT procurement policies, the decision to call on Sun’s eccentric co-founder is an incomprehensible twist. McNealy’s long history of bizarre and contradictory positions on open source software make him a less than ideal candidate for helping to shape national policy on the subject. Asking Scott McNealy to write a paper about open source software is a bit like asking Dick Cheney to write a paper about government transparency.
And here is what CNET had to say, in part:
While I agree with those benefits [of open source], I’m not a supporter of mandates. I wouldn’t want the government mandating Microsoft software–why would I therefore seek an open-source mandate? Open source has done remarkably well in the U.S. federal government without mandates, and will continue to do so because of the benefits identified by McNealy.
Perhaps the trouble associated with coming out with a report or even a government wide coherent approach is that open source software is not really free really. Yes, some of the software that qualifies as open source can be used freely, and is used freely, and whenever I criticize the open source business model people point out that IPWatchdog.com runs using WordPress, which is free (i.e., no cost). For reasons that I have never understood and which have never been explained in any rational manner, there are many who find it disingenuous of me to point out that open source is a flawed business model at the same time I use open source software. There is, of course, nothing inconsistent or intellectually dishonest about noticing that the open source business model is one that is doomed to fail while at the same time using open source software.
The fact that at least some open source software is given away to be used freely demonstrates the problem with finding a sustainable business model and may explain why the Obama Administration hasn’t yet presented the report on how the government can use open source software to decrease costs. You really have a hard time staying in business and focusing on the research, development and product advancements when the product you offer is given away to be used free, or the underlying code that makes it work can be copied and used by competitors without consequences. So the fact that I use WordPress does nothing other than demonstrate my point about the lack of a sustainable business model for open source software. I use WordPress because it is sufficient for my purposes and it is free, which illustrates the primary fatal flaw in pursuing an open source strategy. You cannot make money on free.
In fact, back in 2008 Business Week wrote that open source business models that rely on service revenue streams fail to meet the expectations of investors. In November of 2009 the New York Times reported that the business model for open source has been elusive, that there is doubt whether the business model can stand the test of time and that really only one company – Red Hat – is successfully making money. In June 2010, ComputerWorldUK wrote about that traumatic realization (at least for some in the open source community) that “for an open source company to become commercially successful, it needs to have an unfair advantage against its competition – something that they cannot copy, use, modify or provide to their customers.” Also in June 2010, InfoWorld quipped that the way to make a small fortune with open source software is to start with a large fortune, and then went on to point out that, “The open source revolution began at least two decades ago, but businesses and programmers are still struggling to understand the best way to share wonderful code and pay the mortgage.”
Of course, not all open source software is free, and that is something that the open source community is having a difficult time accepting. More and more are coming out and saying the obvious, which is what ComputerWorldUK wrote, that there needs to be some kind of “unfair advantage” to prevent the competition from simply taking what you have come up with, repackage it and then use your work in the marketplace against you. That “unfair advantage” isn’t really an unfair advantage at all though. When the law offers a mechanism to create an advantage it is hardly unfair to exploit it. What am I talking about? Patents. If you have a software innovation you can obtain a patent on it and pursue a proprietary model.
To a large extent open source and patents are logically inconsistent, but if there is going to be a long term open source market those who are searching for a business model that does more than provide service revenue, which always dwindles as new businesses enter and push prices down, there has to be some propriety solutions working in tandem with open source ideals.
It is certainly laudable to want to create and give the fruits of your labors away, but the open source movement would do more for the community and more for innovation if they were able to stay in business and continue to engage in ongoing research and development. For that reason open source should focus on collaborative innovation rather than a militant idea that if you take open source software for your project you have done a deal with the devil and your derivative work is free to be used, copied and owned by anyone and everyone else.
In the early stages of a business life cycle it makes all the sense in the world to copy and take from others. Open source must seem to business newbies akin to being a kid in a candy shop. But then after you create yourself it doesn’t seem quite so wonderful. Depending upon the open source regime you have copied from you may have no ability to prevent others from taking what you contribute that is new, which doesn’t sound so great after you have spent time and money creating that which is new. How will you recoup your investments? Exactly. You won’t, but you will be able to sell your time as a service.
Who knows why the Obama Administration hasn’t been faster out of the gate with the open source report and recommendations for the federal government. Perhaps it is forthcoming. But when you set out an initiative on the second day in office and you still don’t have anything to show for it exactly 26 months later I think it is legitimate to ask why. So why hasn’t there been more progress? Perhaps it isn’t as easy as it would seem to adopt something that the government thought would largely be free.
About the Author
Gene Quinn is a US Patent Attorney, law professor and the founder of IPWatchdog.com. He is also a principal lecturer in the top patent bar review course in the nation, which helps aspiring patent attorneys and patent agents prepare themselves to pass the patent bar exam. Gene started the widely popular intellectual property website IPWatchdog.com in 1999, and since that time the site has had many millions of unique visitors. Gene has been quoted in the Wall Street Journal, the New York Times, the LA Times, USA Today, CNN Money, NPR and various other newspapers and magazines worldwide. He represents individuals, small businesses and start-up corporations. As an electrical engineer with a computer engineering focus his specialty is electronic and computer devices, Internet applications, software and business methods.