Open Tech Today - Top Stories

Friday, April 07, 2006

Norway Out in the Open

The signs were there for anyone who was watching. The next mover and shaker for open technologies is... Norway. Its Ministry of Government Administration and Reform has announced its intention of breaking the lock-in of public information to proprietary data formats. (For you norwegian speakers, the offical press release is here).

While ODF is not mentioned by name (neither is Microsoft, though news articles couldn't resist portraying this as Norway and open source vs. MS), open data formats are clearly the driver of Norway's open standards plans.

Norway's main message is this: access to public information will not be dependent upon software owned by any IT company.

The Minister, Heidi Grande Røys, put it nicely in an interview with Norway's leading business newspaper:
It would be unthinkable to force Norwegians to use one telephone company when calling public offices. But that, in principle, is what we have allowed in the computer sector.
Norway's next step: setting up an experts panel to set standards on public information. One would expect OpenDocument Format and interoperability to be major topics of consideration.

Thursday, April 06, 2006

Trains, Planes or Automobiles for the Net?

Net neutrality was put to a vote today in the U.S. Congress. Maybe you heard about it, maybe you didn't. (If not, read here). A net neutrality requirement was rejected by the Congressional subcommittee responsible for re-writing US telecommunications laws.

What does it mean? In the short term, it means that nothing stops telecom and cable companies from blocking or impairing web services and content that compete with the high-speed services of those who pay them premium fees.

Is this so bad? After all, the telcom / cable companies are investing big money to build broadband networks. If they will offer better, faster service, shouldn't companies pay more for that? Nothing wrong with people paying more to get more.

But, we should be clear. The Internet will not look the same after this. Today, the Internet is "flat" -- there is little difference in how quickly different websites and content get loaded and made available to consumers. You type in a website address, and it loads. If you paid for broadband access, you get the same broadband access to any website you want. From the user's perspective, all websites are equal.

That's not how it will work without net neutrality. That's not how it will work when the bill supported by the telecom / cable companies becomes law. When that day comes . . .

You, the consumer, pay for broadband (like you do today). You type in a website address. How fast will it load? That depends on whether the owner of that website paid a premium fee to the telecom / cable company to deliver its content and services on the "fast lane." If they did, you get it at the fastest broadband speed. If not, you get it at a slower speed. And that slow lane is going to get crowded as websites continue to proliferate globally.

The Internet will be a class system. And who decided this is how it should be? Telecom and cable companies. They will decide how, and how much. Why? Because they built the infrastructure.

It makes perfect sense . . . as long as you think that the Internet is more like an airplane than a highway.

We don't allow a two-tiered system to rule our roads. Why? Because we see roads as basic public infrastructure on which all users are equal. People don't pay the construction company more just to use the fast lane.

But, we do pay more to sit in business class on an airplane. Airplanes use a class system based on price. And seats are limited. And pricing is complicated. That is what the telecom / cable companies want for the Internet.

So, should we view the Internet as a public highway, or a private airline?

Wednesday, April 05, 2006

Feelin' Minnesota

Two respected colleagues Sam Hiser and Andy Updegrove have already blogged news of the bill tabled in Minnesota's state legislature to require the use of open standards by state agencies. In fact, it makes open standards the default, and uses the power of budget approval to give the policy real teeth.

Two points to note in the bill:

1. It sets a very high threshold for getting an exemption to the open standards requirement -- only when it is "technically impossible."

2. It aggressively seeks to break proprietary lock-in. State agencies will not be able to avoid switching to open data formats simply because they have existing data in proprietary formats or because they use certain software.

Additional media coverage can be found here.

Tuesday, April 04, 2006

Is Open Source Being Corrupted?

In a recent report/interview, Michael Goulde of Forrester Research rang the alarm bell about the risk of profit-hungry tech companies corrupting the "open" values of open source communities and projects.

His argument (summarized here) is: As companies try to cash in on the open source phenomena and become more active in open source projects, they have a strong motivation to steer those projects (and the software produced by them) in directions more amenable to generating revenues and less in line with the principles of freedom to use, copy, modify distribute that open source software represents.

The shorthand argument is this . . . Absolute community corrupts absolutely. As open source communities increasingly involve vendors, their presence (and profit motive) risks corrupting the basic principles of open source software.

So, will the quest for profits erode the "open" in open source?

To begin, I see no inherant contradiction between open source and profits. Many do. I don't. Access to source code combined with the open source principles allows someone to take code, change it, build new softare on top of it, and sell a new software product (or service wrapped around it). Open source licenses protect access to code, but don't stop people from building businesses around it.

The real risks exist when there is no robust community behind an open source project, or if a vendor is trying to "open source" some proprietary software but does not really want to relinquish control over its development. In other words, if you don't have a truly open community, there is a risk that a vendor can steer development or impose conditions inconsistent with an open source model. But then again, any person with appropriate technical expertise willing to be very active in a project can "steer" it to some degree.

I would guess that a strategy to co-opt an open source project would, in most cases, fail in the end. Open and closed work differently. And developers easily spot the difference once they get involved in a project.

There is a certain resiliency involved in open source projects that have a critical mass of community behind them. And it is not easy to remove the fundamental elements of open source -- like code access and basic licensing terms -- without people noticing, and complaining loudly.

You can find additional commentary organized by Dave Rosenberg of the OSDL (including some of my own) here.

Sunday, April 02, 2006

A Business Case for OpenOffice & ODF

This is how ICT decisions should be made ... with a business case.

Here is one city's business case for the move to Star Office / OpenOffice for desktop computers. The city is Bristol (in the UK). And its business case includes a cost-benefit analysis of the switch to ODF.

So, the City of Bristol becomes #3 in the list of governments officially adopting ODF. Yesterday I blogged about #2, the National Archives of Australia (See below).