"There's a healthy competition unfolding before us between proprietary and open-source software," Phillip Bond, the U.S. Commerce Department's under secretary for technology, said during Thursday's roundtable. "It's good from a policy perspective to let markets decide what they want."
Bond said the government isn't looking to pick winners or losers but rather to stimulate innovation. "We see a world where open source and proprietary can exist," he said. "May the best technology and the best solution win."
Not all members of the roundtable, which included representatives from IBM, the Open Source Development Lab, and the United Nations, were convinced that the United States or any other government would or could resist getting involved in reshaping the software market. Government's role as the largest consumer of IT ensures that government agencies will at least want to be involved in the formation and enforcement of standards, said Dimo Calovski, economic affairs officer for the United Nations Conference on Trade and Development, a 40-year-old organization formed to help developing economies play a larger role in the world economy. "Government policy on technology issues is a fact of life," he said.
Questions raised about the legality of code contributed to Linux over the years also evoked diverse reactions from roundtable participants. Some said intellectual-property lawsuits and accusations are distracting people from open-source technology's greatest value--the worldwide collaboration of innovators and problem solvers, Calovski said. "From a policy point of view, I would want to devote my resources to something other than enforcement of intellectual property. That money is better spent elsewhere."
Bond was less dismissive of the intellectual property challenges. "Countries are free to choose open source, but we're concerned about the enforcement of intellectual property," he said. "Proprietary property needs to be protected, and that will require that governments take this seriously."
The SCO Group is at the center of the open-source intellectual-property debate. SCO last year sued IBM for allegedly contributing portions of SCO-owned Unix source code to the Linux kernel. This touched off a flurry of lawsuits that include an IBM countersuit against SCO, a suit by Linux distributor Red Hat against SCO, and, earlier this week, an SCO lawsuit against Novell.
No one on the roundtable disputed Linux's appeal to government IT initiatives around the world. When government and other areas of the public sector look at software, there are a number of factors to consider, including cost of ownership, quality, standards, and complexity, said Hal Varian, dean of the University of California at Berkeley's School of Information Management and Systems and the roundtable's moderator.
In developed countries, where wages tend to be high, the cost of software is relatively level with the cost of employees, Varian said. In emerging countries, however, the cost of software can be much higher than the cost of paying a workforce. "Although you can't make a blanket statement about every government," he said, this cost disconnect encourages organizations in still-emerging economies to consider inexpensive open-source software over proprietary packages.