Monday, June 22, 2009

Geekonomics - Incentives for the States NOT to invest in opensource

Third of the series of articles inspired by David Rice's Geekonomics. This article is not directly related with matters from the book, yet I got the idea while reading the book.

FLOSS = Free/Libre Open Source Software (as abbreviated by the European Union)

If you're like me and enjoy, use and promote FLOSS, you might be wondering why some States do not favour FLOSS in the public infrastructure.

Well, they do use FLOSS, as a matter of fact, because you can't build a whole infrastructure made only of proprietary software and if you tried, it would be extremely expensive [and potentially disastrous for compatibility issues]. So, you might be wondering why some States do not favour FLOSS more than they do, in the public infrastructure.

So far as I can understand it, most States are running a race to be in the first positions of wealth, military strength and fame. Things can be different for the top one, which would only want not to lose its rank. And things can be different for the bottom ones, who simply have too many matters to address before they will concentrate on a worldwide competition.

So, let's assume we speak about the countries in the top thirty of this world, except the very first ones. This group is made of countries like France, Italy, Germany, Russia, Brazil, India, South Africa... Why do these countries not publicly favour FLOSS more than they do?

To favour it more, they could:
  • Ask for documented, free to implement, data formats. This way, wars fought by software makers on purposeful incompatibility would be avoided.
  • Ask for more FLOSS inside all public agencies.
  • Ask for more education in FLOSS in the public education system.
  • Invest directly into FLOSS development, or make a policy that some public developments will be made FLOSS after some time.
All this would favour FLOSS, but all this would not necessarily favour the race of the State to wealth, military strength and fame. It would, of course, improve wealth, military strength and fame. But my point is: FLOSS does not improve the rank of a State in the international competition, because every improvement is available to all competitors as well.

  • By asking for documented, open, data formats, or by asking for FLOSS inside public agencies, the State would agree to spend money on a shift, that would probably be beneficial, yes, but the economic developments involved (more developers, maintenance contracts, etc) could be beneficial to people or companies located anywhere on Earth, because of the very nature of FLOSS. On the contrary, when a State signs with a precise, well-known, software maker, it knows where the profits will go.
  • By asking for more education geared toward FLOSS, a State agrees to turn its youth to an uncertain future. While the future is obviously uncertain, there is more certainty in teaching the youth how to use what's majority and paying than in teaching them what's still minority and looks like not-so-well rewarding. So, short-sighted politicians might see education in FLOSS as a bad investment for youth.
  • By investing into FLOSS developments, the State agrees to spend money on its own, while the fruit of this investment can be eaten by all. In a competition, it's bad invested money. It is more interesting, as a State, to invest in a proprietary development by a local company and see the licenses be paid by other countries.
All of these seem good reasons for a politician not to favour FLOSS when they seemingly can. Of course, on the long run, that's detrimental to us all :-(