Do big government and open-source software mix? Fans of free software may be about to find out, if a report in this week's Federal Times is on the money. Quoting an unnamed "senior White House official," the Federal Times reports that the White House, worried about an over-reliance on Microsoft and concerned with security issues, is planning to "diversify the types of operating systems software purchased by the government."
According to the weekly newspaper -- a Gannett subsidiary targeted at federal government employees -- the National Security Council "soon will create a new office to assess the ways federal agencies could make greater use of open-source, or nonproprietary, software that is freely available to anyone."
The news is intriguing on several levels. Open-source software advocacy has historically included a strong libertarian sentiment. As open-source evangelist Eric Raymond is wont to argue, open-source software -- software programs in which the underlying code is made freely available to the general public -- is simply better, and the free market will eventually recognize that fact to the detriment of proprietary software companies. From a libertarian perspective, the government has little obvious role in the software marketplace, other than to just keep from mucking things up.
However, open-source software has also been passionately adopted by some liberal and left-wing thinkers as well -- they see the spread of open-source software as a clear public good, and argue that governments should take an active role in promoting it.
But don't worry about federal agents bashing your door down and ripping your copy of Microsoft Office off your hard drive. The most compelling angle on the news from Washington is the realization that government promotion of open-source software does not require direct state intervention. As the Federal Times reports, citing statistics from the market research company Federal Sources Inc., of Fairfax, Va., the U.S. government will spend $2 billion on software in 2000. The feds are already extremely involved in the software marketplace. Simply by changing its purchasing decisions, the government can make a big difference in determining the future of software evolution.
Of course, what the White House says now, at the tail end of a lame-duck presidency, doesn't necessarily correspond to what the White House will say after the next election. Will support of open source be a partisan issue? Who cares whether or not George W. Bush is a recovering cokehead? The really crucial issue is this: Where does the governor of Texas stand on open source? You heard the question here first.