Journal Open source or proprietary software? Mr. Monti’s priority


Open source or proprietary software? Mr. Monti’s priority

25 November 2012


Among a number of innovations recently announced, Mr. Monti's cabinet has decided to aim at open source for the Public Administration.

The 2012 Decree for Development published last Summer actually contains a norm regarding open source which might revolutionize the Italian PA.

Practically, before adopting any, all the administrations should always make a comparison - both technical and economic - between open and proprietary solutions.

This is stated in the 2012 Decree for Development (Law n. 134, August 7, 2012), approved last Summer, together with other "Urgent measures for the digital agenda and for transparency in the Public Administration".

The new proposed method for purchasing computer programs - or parts of them - is particularly interesting. Public authorities and their consultants will have to indeed carry out a comparative technical and economic assessment between the solutions available on the market. In practice, we are talking about: software developed on behalf of the PA, re-use of software or parts of it developed on behalf of the PA, free software or open source software or combination of the above solutions.

The open source, from a business point of view, is not necessarily better than proprietary software, as well as the reverse is not true either. The true value of software lies not in its initial cost savings, but in the business opportunity - in the broadest sense, including then the services that public entities should/could deliver to citizens, businesses or other public entities - it may generate. To make this assessment, for example, you need to "weigh" the experience of people in the company, in addition to the software itself.

The right question should then probably be: which is the kind of software my company could better leverage?

The open software is generically less expensive in terms of mere licenses, however, it also requires knowledgeable personnel which could use it and solve the problems when they arise. In general, a proprietary software has a support service for solving problems, while there are few companies which offer a "complete" support - in the vast majority, not for free - on open products.

This is why the companies that use (or plan to use) open source software should hire employees who have done hands-on experience with these products and are able to address issues that may arise, and this is introducing in your business a cost related to this free software - that's why many claim that the open source software is not really free -.

Still, the evaluations to be carried out before deciding whether to adopt an open or proprietary solution does not end here.

Another key is the business "know how": if for years your company has used and developed in proprietary environments, it is obvious that a sudden jump to the open source could prove counterproductive. In addition to the considerable initial cost savings in the licenses, one must assess the impact of know-how conversion which, in the long run, could be much more expensive than the initial open source benefits.

In summary, there are many assessments to make when choosing a technology: the cost is not trivially determined based on the cost of the licenses, but also on the know-how, the sector in which you are operating, and future investments opportunities. What should be carefully calculated is the so-called TCO (Total Cost of Ownership), although it is not easy to have all its variables under control.

The Decree emphasizes, however, that only when the technical and economic comparative assessments are demonstrating "the inability to access open source solutions existing or already developed within the public administration at a lower price, it is permitted the acquisition of computer programs by recourse to proprietary license."

One of the limitations of this legislation, according to some experts, is that it also lacks a strict definition of what is meant by "open source". In practice, the risk is that some companies could use this "label" to place proprietary products on the market, or even worse, paralyzed decisions, under the uncertainty of the correct application of the Decree.

Would not have been more appropriate to favor the adherence of the PA's information systems to the so-called "open standards"?

That's a category certainly wider than open source, however, it would have had the advantage of embracing a part of the so-called proprietary world, enhancing the benefits associated with it as described above, while ensuring easier maintenance and interoperability of the adopted solutions, due to their adherence to official and published standards.

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