The low-down on Open Source Law

Open Source Law founder, Brendan Scott, discusses the legal implications of FOSS in Australian government and enterprise organisations

Lower total cost of ownership and lower acquisition costs lead the pack in one survey of enterprise adoption of open source software, while product support concerns and lack of awareness are the biggest hindrances. Does that equate with your experiences?

Waugh Partners' recently released an Australian open source census which indicated there is a lot of support offerings for open source in Australia. I think people are initially attracted by the potential for lower licence fees, but they stay for the flexibility they gain and the "soft costs" they save. From a user's point of view, it means control of your own destiny. For a supplier's point of view flexibility means high agility. They then are unconstrained by the myriad of blockers that the adoption of closed source technologies will put in their way. I have begun documenting some of these blockers on my blog - see my posts on The Invisible Closed Source Overhead

Who, in your opinion, from enterprise, large organisations or government, is leading the charge in successful and sustainable open source software adoption in Australia?

There is a lot of activity in all areas of the market, although FOSS tends to be more accessible for enterprises which have in-house IT support and enterprises which are larger (because they get better returns to scale). Getting good numbers on these areas is difficult because there is an inherent lag between adoption and announcement. Indeed, in the early years of FOSS adoption organisations deliberately kept their implementations secret because it gave them such a substantial competitive advantage. In fact, just running an open source trial can help secure licensing discounts for existing closed source products.

The position in Government is less clear. I helped the NSW Department of Commerce with their Linux tender a couple of years ago, the NSW RTA with their implementation of an open source desktop, and the NSW Health Department with their open source release of an epidemiology tracking program. All of these were world firsts for a government department. In the ACT, Roslyn Dundas secured legislation which reduced government bias against open source and at the federal level AGIMO published a guide to FOSS procurement. These were also world firsts.

I continue to do government related open source projects but there seems to be less publicity of government open source related successes. Australian governments need a better way to evangelise their open source successes and educate other potential users. They should consider using some of their licence savings to support Australian industry to perform this function.

What do you make of the OOXML debacle, and Microsoft's recent interoperability pledges?

While I helped make OOXML a better document during the ISO process, like many people I remain disappointed by the process at ISO for its adoption. Lingering concern about the OOXML and the OSP remains in the community. This uncertainty inhibits interoperability. Interoperability is of fundamental importance to competition in the software market. The licensing terms of open source ensure a base level of interoperability. Without interoperability effective competition is very hard, if not impossible (although this depends on the product domain). What users signal to their vendors on these issues is very important. To say nothing is to support the status quo. Users who want cheaper software and long term access to their data have to be very clear about the importance of interoperability and open source in their purchasing requirements. Those organisations which are large enough, should consider also covering the API related issues I alluded to earlier. There is already widespread support for OpenOffice and I can only see that growing in the future.

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