The Economist on OSS and Government

The economist published an article on open source software and government yesterday. The article opens by discussing Munich's recent decision to go with Linux on the desktop. According to the article, governments around the world spend $17 billion on software:

Government purchases of software totaled almost $17 billion globally in 2002, and the figure is expected to grow by about 9% a year for the next five years, according to IDC, a market-research firm (see chart). Microsoft controls a relatively small part of this market, with sales to governments estimated at around $2.8 billion.

This figure seems low to me, I would have put it higher. The article goes on to call the marriage of OSS and government Microsoft's Achilles heel:

[I]t is a crucial market, because when a government opts for a particular technology, the citizens and businesses that deal with it often have to fall into line. (In one notable example, America's defense department adopted the internet protocol as its networking standard, forcing contractors to use it, which in turn created a large market for internet-compliant products.) No wonder Microsoft feels threatened÷the marriage of open-source software and government could be its Achilles heel.

When I first read this, I thought "hog-wash" there's no reason for a citizen to be forced to buy a Microsoft product just because the government uses it. After all, there are open standards or at least solutions that are freely available and not Microsoft specific in most areas. But then I thought of the many place on where, like it or not, there was some kind of Microsoft specific solution which at least suggested that using Microsoft would be easier than not using it. For example:

  • There are several places where downloadable forms or information was in Word. There's a free reader, but not many people have it. The Utah Courts have "self-service divorce" application that is based on Microsoft Word.
  • There are places where a web application is specific to Internet Explorer for one reason or another. In many cases, agencies work to avoid this, but some do not---either out of ignorance or financial pressure. There is not statewide testing lab, for example, that agencies can use to test for browser usability or even 508 compliance.

The conclusion: eGovernment portals ought to be more general than using the easy Microsoft solution, but often they're not because the culture is so overwhelmed by Microsoft products. Its easy to fall into little traps here and there and in the end you build applications that "work best" with Microsoft. Maybe The Economist is right after all.