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A Letter to the California Performance Review Commission

The Center writes to oppose Commission's recommendation to implement a procurement preference in favor of open source software over proprietary software.

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September 29, 2004

Co-Chairs Bill Hauck & Joanne Kozberg
California Performance Review Commission
c/o Office of Governor Arnold Schwarzenegger
State Capitol
Sacramento, CA 95814

Re: SO10: Explore Open Source Alternatives

Dear Co-Chairs Hauck and Kozberg:

On behalf of the Center for Individual Freedom, I submit this public comment to the California Performance Review ("CPR"). While the Center applauds most of the CPR’s recommendations and enthusiastically supports its goals of increasing government efficiency, productivity and accountability, we are troubled by recommendation "SO10: Explore Open Source Alternatives," which seems to suggest that the State of California implement a procurement preference in favor of open source software over proprietary software.

Specifically, the recommendation suggests that California "should take an inventory of software purchases and software renewals … and implement open source alternatives where feasible." It also further suggests that the State "[i]ncorporate open source software as a viable alternative to any software procurement."

As a non-partisan, non-profit advocacy organization that supports free market principles while promoting fair, honest and accountable government, the Center believes that if recommendation SO10 is implemented, the necessary result would not only be state government discrimination against proprietary software in purchasing, but also reduced efficiency and productivity. As with all government procurement decisions, the Center believes the State should purchase or license software based upon fair evaluations and assessments of the comparative merits of all competing products, both open source and proprietary software, alike. In other words, California should continue its practice of buying that software which best equips the State at the lowest cost while providing the greatest value. Doing so will not only ensure that each software purchase meets the specific needs of the State, but also that it does so by making the best use of scarce taxpayer resources.

In general, both open source and proprietary software have their own strengths and weaknesses that vary from application to application. This means that, when it comes to purchasing or licensing software, there can be no one-size-fits-all solution. Instead, there are many contexts in which proprietary software is a better value and more cost effective, and there are others where open source software might be the preferable choice. Nevertheless, CPR recommendation SO10 does not suggest such an even-handed and balanced approach to the State’s software procurement decisions. Instead, it indicates a specific preference for open

source software because, as stated in the summary, "open source software … can in many cases provide the same functionality as closed source software at a much lower total cost of ownership." While this may be true in specific circumstances, it is certainly not a universal rule that should govern all of California’s software procurement decisions.

Indeed, CPR recommendation SO10 seems to be a very one-sided assessment of the software world, asserting a number of possible benefits of open source software products, while ignoring not only their attendant drawbacks but also the competing merits of proprietary software solutions. Much of the recommendation’s discussion simply does not address the numerous considerations that should be considered when the State — or anyone — decides to purchase or license a software product for a specific purpose. A wide variety of factors can have tremendous impact on short-term and long-term costs, productivity, interoperability, compatibility, efficiency and value — all factors that should be fully considered when the State makes its software procurement decisions. Taking note of these factors is all the more important since CPR recommendation SO10 suggests that California will proceed by giving preference to open source code in all of its software procurement decisions.

Here are just a few such considerations:

  • When total cost of ownership is considered, open source software is not inherently less costly than proprietary software. Although open source software is often distributed for free or at a much-reduced fee, the cost of training, implementation, configuration, maintenance, and upgrading can be tremendous, far outweighing any up-front savings.

  • Open source software is potentially less secure than its proprietary competition. In fact, the public exchange of open source code can compromise the security of open source software products, and the public availability of the source code can pose a significant problem when open source software is used in sensitive settings, such as government IT contexts where information may include private information collected from wide segments of the population. Several studies have shown that hacker attacks against open source software have been steadily increasing. This is troubling since often there is no single place IT professionals can go to address security pitfalls in open source software that is often distributed without support and that may have been significantly altered for the particular setting in which the software is used. Protection of private information kept by government is a fundamental responsibility of government.

  • Unlike proprietary software, open source software usually comes with no warranty (or if it does, such warranty is often inapplicable if the code has been altered to fit the needs of a specific use), leaving no recourse should the software malfunction. Closed source software is usually licensed along with a warranty, documentation and support. This means that not only are there experts to turn to when problems occur, but the State would have legal recourse to recover costs if the software fails to perform.

  • Often misunderstood, the adoption of open source software does not ensure any greater level of compatibility or interoperability between technology and users. In fact, since open source code can be, and often is, modified, open source software that is interoperable is often altered by the user to a point that breaks interoperability.

  • While it is true that public access to source code in open source software allows for the possibility that the product can be used across various platforms and users, the same and perhaps more efficient compatibility and interoperability is available through proprietary products. The entirety of the software world, both open source and proprietary, alike, have recognized the necessity of being able to move data from technology to technology and from user to user. As a result, proprietary software producers and companies have embraced "open standards" so that their products can be compatible with and operate across various platforms, technologies and user boundaries. The industry-wide adoption of open standards agreements has proactively addressed the compatibility and interoperability concerns of open source advocates while protecting the intellectual property rights of proprietary software makers.

  • Some who proselytize for government adoption of open source software preferences evidence ideological hostility to free-market principles as well as intellectual property rights. Such personal biases should never influence government procurement decisions.

In the past two years, nearly two dozen states have rejected similar proposals that would have given preference to open source software in procurement decisions. These states have rejected such proposals because they recognized that there is no one-size-fits-all solution for software procurement, and that each software purchasing decision must be made based on the specific needs and requirements of the software’s use. In fact, only two-years ago, the California legislature chose not to take up a bill mandating a preference for open source software.

The Center believes that the competitive marketplace provides the best forum in which California can make all of its software procurement decisions. Limiting choice or giving a preference to one type of software over another — which is SO10’s tacit recommendation — is never in the State’s or the taxpayer’s best interest. Doing so can only limit California’s ability to find the best solutions to tomorrow’s technological challenges.


Jeffrey Mazzella
Executive Director


[Posted September 30, 2004]

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