Posted by: Steve Hamm on August 28, 2006
The outcome of the global battle between Microsoft and the proponents of open source software is a hard one to call. Even though open source seems like a natural fit for many nations with little money and a tremendous need for education and connectivity, Microsoft has a huge marketing and lobbying budget to take its pro-proprietary software message to the farflung capitals of the world.
The most recent face-off came at a three-day, closed-door symposium on IT policy and open source software at the UN that started on Aug. 29. I got a look at the first day’s agenda, and it sure looks like the deck was stacked against Microsoft. Speaking for open source were free-software visionary Richard Stallman, Bob Sutor of IBM, Kirk Klasson of Novell, and a bunch more open source mavens. Speaking up for proprietary software: Randy Ramusack, Microsoft’s United Nations Technology Advisor. Microsoft declined to make available a copy of Ramusack’s remarks, but IBM’s Sutor dropped by my office the day before the symposium to fill me in on the state of play. Sutor’s message: The way to win world governments over to open source is to start by pitching them on the value of open standards and open access to information. Governments want sovereignty over their documents.
Sutor found this out during the long battle in Massachusetts over a proposed switch to open source software. Former state CIO Peter Quinn at first proposed a major policy shift favoring open source products but ran into a hornets’ nest of opposition stirred up by Microsoft. He came back with a new tactic: The state should only adopt software applications that support the Open Document Format (ODF), assuring that the government will always be able to open its documents, even if it switches software suppliers. That battle, he won. Says Sutor: "That's the foot in the door we have been looking for. It's a hook to tell the open source story."
The UN started exploring the open source issues last year, and now Sutor says the topic is firmly on the agenda as the organization seeks to accomplish its so-called Millennium Development Goals of improving education and standards of living around the world. Much of the progress for open source has been grassroots stuff in cities, or states, or regions of countries. "With the UN, we have an opportunity to get some things going from the top down," says Sutor.
I made a call to Colleen Thouez, the chief of UNITAR, the United Nations Institute of Training and Research, which sponsored the symposium, but she was tied up with the event. If we make contact, I'll update this posting.