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Free Software and Software Development in the Government
by Bruno Souza
August 31, 2003
Summary
Governments around the world are discussing laws and policies to promote the use of free software. It seems that most of the time this debate ignores the problem of developing applications inside the government.

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It took me quite some time write my first post. One reason is that I've never webloged before. Another reason is that I try to listen more then talk, so I observed my weblog-colleagues here at Artima for awhile. Maybe the real reason is that everybody says that when I start talking, I have a hard time stopping, so, better wait until I have something useful to say. Hopefully, "useful" in a weblog has a very loose meaning...

As the leader of one of the largest Java Users Groups in the country, I'm actively participating in the Free Software inside the government discussion. This is one of the most important debate of the IT industry going on in Brazil right now. The topic is so hot that during the last few weeks I spoke in several free software related meetings and events around the country. This is because the Brazilian government is considering federal laws that proposes the preferential use of free software inside government agencies and institutions. Some of our states and cities already have similar laws, and now the debate has reached our federal level. The same discussion is going on worldwide, and is probably happening somehow in your government as well.

One of the most important of these recent events, the "Free Software Week in the Parliament", was promoted by the Brazilian Parliament and had the presence of Richard Stallman (Free Software Foundation) and Miguel de Icaza (Gnome Foundation), along with many important free software advocates and politicians. This is one of many demonstrations of the strong support that the free software model is having at our Parliament.

It is clear that free software brings many benefits to governments, from cheaper licensing to more transparent security, and puts the government in a much better position to negotiate contracts. Also, the use of free software ends up promoting the service industry, what has a good appeal to Brazil, since not many Brazilian software companies rely on licensing as their main income.

From a developer point of view, having a law that mandate the preferential use of free software, seems to be attacking the wrong side of the problem...

Governments and companies do not get locked into a vendor or a platform simply because they use closed software. They get locked because they develop their own applications tied to a specific product, be it a free product, or a proprietary product. Once all your applications are written to a product, and all your data is saved into a product-specific format, to move to another offering (free or proprietary) is a big effort. And the longer you do it, eventually it gets near to impossible - and you're locked. Vendors know this, and promote it as much as they can. And although free software makes you less dependent on the vendor, it does not necessarily keeps you from getting locked into a product...

Governments usually develop many applications. Some of then are large, complex, and affects huge amounts of people. And the amount of data generated by a large government as Brazil is almost scary. And the fact that those applications and data are usually tied to a product is the main obstacle to the adoption of free software, and one that cannot be simply dispelled by laws.

That's why governments would be better off defining laws or policies to guarantee that applications developed to or by the government are based on open standards, and that all data is saved into open formats, always focusing in keeping the government owned software effectively free of product lock-in.

Since we know that the use of free software is good for the government, the use of open standards, that can be implemented as free software, gives us a better way of promoting free software use. Once applications are free from specific products, it is a lot easier to replace closed products for free implementations, giving free software implementations a real chance to compete and to show their technical advantages. Defending free software on their technical merits is a much stronger argument to governments and companies. Keeping our applications ready to benefit from free software implementations favors free software even in the (quite common) case were the free implementation is still being developed.

If governments want to adopt free software, they are better off attacking the right side of the problem, and focusing on developing their applications to open standards, as a way of not be locked into products, be them free or closed software.

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About the Blogger

Working with Java since the early days, Bruno F. Souza has become the number one Java Evangelist in Brazil, responsible for hundreds of Java presentations throughout the country. As a Java consultant, Bruno helped some of the largest Java projects in Brazil to became a reality, and as the founder and coordinator of Brazil's largest Java User Group (SouJava - the Java Users Society), Bruno helped drive the growth of the Brazilian Java community.

This weblog entry is Copyright © 2003 Bruno Souza. All rights reserved.

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