Government’s Role in Open Source Software Policy
Open source software (OSS) is more than software whose code is available to the public to be read and revised. It is also an economic activity that fits into the larger ecosystem of software and technological activities.
Open source software is not the only paradigm for software development, of course. Other models include building proprietary products and developing software for hire in the form of outsourcing contracts.
Role for Government
The government must try to maximize the benefits of the full range of software development approaches for its national economy. The role of the government must be guided both by its premier position as a consumer of software and by its responsibility as a promoter of industry.
Government as a large-scale user and the adoption of Open Standards
As the singlemost important software user in any country, the government must avoid the dangers of a software monoculture and must ensure that its position cannot be exploited. As noted by many national leaders, including India’s, the government’s reliance on a single source of software technology can lead to unacceptable stability and security risks. Furthermore, the vendor, reinforced by government procurement practices that minimize competition, has little motivation to ensure reasonable licensing terms and fees and has every incentive to phase out support for older products. With impunity, the monopoly vendor can force customers into frequent and costly upgrades of both software and hardware. Healthy competition is essential for the security, prosperity and independence of all large-scale software consumers, including the government.
Complementing the government’s promotion of competition must be an insistence on acquiring only ICT products that meet open standards. Open standards defeat vendor lock-in by fostering diversity and robustness of implementations from multiple sources. Encouraging open source can also help achieve open standards. Each successful open source project embodies in itself an “open standard”. This same dynamic, exploiting merit and transparency, has been a key to the successful development of the Internet standards and mirrors, for example, the well-accepted standardization strategy of the Internet Engineering Task Force (IETF).
Government as the promoter of the Indian software industry
The objective of any government software policy in India must be to promote the health of the Indian software industry by balancing competing interests within the entire software and technology ecosystem.
In this respect, the open source approach is not seen as a panacea but as part of a healthy diversification of risks where a proper balance is achieved among outsourcing practices, reasonable protection of proprietary technology, and open source development. That is, proper balance supports all the viable industry models available to India: outsourcing, proprietary product development, and open source development. Diversity is key to long-range health. Ensuring competition will minimize the limitations and negative aspects of any one revenue generating approach and is essential to formulating a successful and sustainable policy.
Concrete activities, which can promote competitiveness among software approaches and which will expand the open source segment of an Indian software industry, include sponsorship of research and development (R&D), expansion of open source software infrastructure, and, of course, actual procurement of open source solutions.
In the world market, the major profit areas for open source software involve selling integration services and support, indirect hardware and systems sales, and packaging. Because of India’s favorable cost structure in the global market, these “dot-OSS” opportunities, whose annual revenue today is several billion US dollars and growing, are a natural for the Indian government to encourage immediately.
Open source services and support readily map into India’s core strength: its existing low cost, high quality, labor intensive software services industry. But open source adds a dimension to this that simple outsourcing never can: India retains ownership of its own contributions and at the same time has full freedom to use the contributions of others to expand its international competitive position.