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Open Letter to the Government of Newfoundland, Canada

Jan 05, 2004, 14:00 (24 Talkback[s])
(Other stories by Brian M. Hunt)


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To: premier@gov.nl.ca

Executive Summary

The cost of moving the standard word processing software for the Government of Newfoundland to Microsoft Word will cost millions of dollars in tangible and intangible costs, lock the province into insecure, bug-ridden, proprietary software, and buck a global trend towards free software, with absolutely no benefit to either the Government or the taxpayers of Newfoundland. There exists the opportunity for Newfoundland to continue to be the Canadian leader in cost-saving ventures by becoming the first Canadian province to embrace free, open-source software as part of its IT policy, and investing the millions of dollars saved on proprietary software into local industry.

Though no longer a resident of Newfoundland, I feel an obligation to my home province. It has come to my attention that the province is considering moving to Microsoft Word as a standard for word processing. I must implore those in responsibility to address the travesty that would result from that decision, and examine alternatives that would be of significant benefit to the government and its constituents, such as cost savings, increased security, and greater software stability.

In the current age, the global movement is away from costly proprietary software. Software from Microsoft in particular has proven itself a haven for costly viruses [1], the costs of which may be accurately estimated and are astronomical [2]. This cost may only be mitigated with equally expensive virus protection software, which is fundamentally unnecessary for free, open source software such as Linux, OpenOffice.org, and Mozilla [3].

There is a global movement against proprietary software in developing and industrialized nations. Indeed, "Samuel Guimarães, executive secretary in Brazil's foreign ministry, told government representatives at the [United Nations] summit meeting's opening sessions that free-to-share software is crucial for the developing world because it enables poorer countries to develop their own technology instead of having to import it." [4] It is my understanding that Newfoundland is fiscally constrained, and in being so, can look to the policies of developing nations for their successful cost saving ventures. Open source software is one such successful venture.

In addition to the general consensus of developing nations towards open-source software, numerous first world countries have also opted for extensive, if not exclusive, open-source usage including Israel [5], Germany [6], Australia, China, Japan and Korea [7]. It is no wonder, since as a result of added security and stability, the elimination of software upgrades, and a reduction in necessary support staff, open source software costs approximately 35% of its proprietary equivalents that offer no particular benefit [8].

In line with the first objective of the Newfoundland Treasury Board IT Procurement Policy, that "Government maximizes the benefits and value it receives from all IT acquisitions" [9], it would be nigh impossible to reconcile moving to Microsoft Word when free, proven, equivalent open-source alternatives such as OpenOffice.org exist [10]. Indeed, OpenOffice is Word-compatible, fully supported by Sun Microsystems [11], and available on multiple operating systems (Linux, MacOS, Windows, Solaris) [12], making it a particularly easy, cost-effective replacement for Microsoft Word, providing the potential to upgrade existing infrastructure from Windows to Linux. The value proposition is so great that the Government of Israel has recently suspended all contracts with Microsoft, opting for an exclusive future with OpenOffice and Linux [13].

In North America, the situation is similar to that of the global market, in spite of the entrenched Microsoft regime. The city of Austin, Texas, has a successful pilot project analyzing the use of OpenOffice.org in government [14]. The government of the city of Largo, Florida runs almost exclusively Open Source software, and has done so since 2001, making it the first North American test case of the enormous savings from open-source software [15]. California has recently proposed legislation that would make proprietary software, such as Microsoft's, illegal in Government [16]. Massachusetts has directed its Government IT staff to move to open source software, where "open-source software -- and, more importantly, open standards -- [are] inevitably replacing much of government's IT resources", in spite of the acknowledged entrenchment of proprietary Microsoft software, citing budgetary constraints [17].

The choice to use Microsoft Word would act against the interests of both the Government and citizens of Newfoundland. Its tangible and intangible costs are extensive and incalculable, including the cost of licensing, cost of anti-virus software, cost of lost productivity due to unstable software, cost maintaining the upgrade cycle, cost of technical support. There are alternatives, and failure to examine them would be a travesty.

In an effort to catch up with the rest of the world by moving to Microsoft Word, I fear Newfoundland will only catch the tail end of the dying paradigm of expensive proprietary software. There is a major shift happening in the IT industry, effectively away from Microsoft products, and Newfoundland has the opportunity to introduce the rest of Canada to the cost savings, stability, and security offered by open-source software by adopting this trend in policy. In doing so, Newfoundland would not only catch up to the rest of the world, but surpass all other Canadian provinces and set an example for them. On the other hand, I humbly submit that, given the global trend for free and open software, and the availability of equivalent alternatives, a cash-strapped province embracing Microsoft Word at this time would be nothing short of a ludicrous tossing of public funds, bearing foresight akin to the Churchill Falls deal.

Nevertheless, even if the Government decides to choose Microsoft Word, the threat to use open-source software is an invaluable bargaining tool. The Thai Government made similar threats, and now has a 95% discount on Windows XP, at US$36 per copy. [18] It is my hope that the Newfoundland Government similarly employs the option to use open-source software as a bargaining tool, so as to not be entirely exploited by the perceived auspices of choosing Microsoft software. However, I must implore the value available in open-source software as a choice, and not just a bargaining tool.

The global grass-roots rise of open source has taken hold in Newfoundland as well; the popular open source operating system Linux is taught as a core part of the curriculum at Memorial University's computer science program, as it has in almost every Computer Science program in Canada, and there is a user group for Linux in St. John's, a base from which the Government may draw existing open-source human resources. [19]

There exists the fantastic opportunity for Newfoundland to provide public servants with efficient, cheap, prolific software choices by embracing open-source software. In doing so, Newfoundland would procure Canadian leadership in the global trend towards cheaper, open, and inter-operable software that permits the Government to invest in the local economy rather than give to a transnational monopoly. In choosing Microsoft Word, it would effect a travesty, a mistake easily avoided, making it all the sharper for me to sit idly and observe.

I hope this letter provides sufficient information and references to mitigate the necessity for any substantial debate on the matter, and that the Government of Newfoundland observes and takes advantage of the best options available to it in the emerging world of predominantly open-source software. I have no affiliation with any open-source software or companies, though I have used open-source software for over 5 years, and I can personally attest to the extensive tangible and intangible benefits it provides to any organization.

Humbly and Respectfully,

Brian M. Hunt
email: bmh_ca@yahoo.com
cc. Rod Forsey , Director, Economic Research and Analysis
Thomas Skinner , Senior Policy, Planning, and Reearch Analyst
Harry T. Hutchings , Director, Information Technology Management Division

[1] Counting the cost of Slammer, http://news.com.com/2100-1001-982955.html
[2] The Cost of a Virus, http://www.cmsconnect.com/Marketing/viruscalc.htm
[3] Addressing Security Issues in Linux, http://www-124.ibm.com/linux/papers/security/Linux-Security-IBM-White-Paper.pdf: "It is fundamentally impossible for Unix-based operating systems to suffer system-level damage from a virus"
[4] Open-source software gets boost at UN, http://www.iht.com/articles/121033.html
[5] Israel stops buying Microsoft Software, http://www.globetechnology.com/servlet/story/RTGAM.20031231.gtisraeldec31/BNStory/Technology/
[6] German Federal Government to Support Open Source Software, http://www.internetnews.com/bus-news/article.php/6_408271
[7] Governments are latching on to Linux, http://zdnet.com.com/2100-1104-1000992.html
[9] Treasury Board IT Procurement Policy, http://www.gov.nl.ca/exec/treasury/itpolicy/procurement.htm
[10] OpenOffice.org, openoffice.org
[11] Sun OpenOffice.org Software Support, http://www.sun.com/service/support/software/openoffice/
[12] OpenOffice.org System Requirements, http://www.openoffice.org/dev_docs/source/sys_reqs_11.html
[13] MS scorns Israeli OpenOffice defection, http://www.theregister.co.uk/content/4/34154.html
[14] City of Austin pilot proves OpenOffice.org work, http://www.newsforge.com/software/03/12/17/1440223.shtml
[15] City saves with Linux, thin clients, http://techupdate.zdnet.com/techupdate/stories/main/0,14179,2860180,00.html
[16] Open source's new weapon: The law?, http://news.com.com/2100-1001-949241.html
[17] Massachusetts Moves from Microsoft to Open Source, http://www.technewsworld.com/perl/story/31901.html
[18] The IT industry is shifting away from Microsoft,
[19] "St. John's Linux User Group", http://web.cs.mun.ca/~slug/

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