Open source software represents a serious alternative to proprietary products, and should be used as a tool to open up software markets to more competition, according to a report carried out under the auspices of the Danish government.
While a number of governments in Europe and elsewhere are eyeing open source software as a way of cutting costs and stimulating localised software development, the Danish study goes a step further, arguing that public sector support for open-source and open standards may be necessary for there to be any real competition in the software market.
The report stirred up controversy in Denmark when it was published in Denmark last year, but has not been available in English until this week, when the Danish Board of Technology released it in a translation backed by the European Parliament.
"Open-source software represents a serious technical and economic alternative to proprietary software -- even where there are proprietary industry standards," the report said. Open-source software licences allow anyone to modify and redistribute the source code of the applications, meaning no one organisation controls the software's development.
The study recommended that governments take an active role in promoting standardised file formats and alternatives to dominant proprietary applications in order to help break a "de facto monopoly". "The ordinary market conditions for standard software will tend towards a very small number of suppliers or a monopoly," the Board of Technology stated in the report. "It will only be possible to achieve competition in such a situation by taking political decisions that assist new market participants in entering the market."
The Board was particularly critical of closed, proprietary standards such as Microsoft's Word format, arguing they go against the principles of e-government by requiring citizens to use particular software and reinforcing monopolies.
"A strategy for e-government should not be based on a closed, proprietary standard in a key technology," the report said. "There is no genuine competition at present in the desktop (office software) area, largely due to the fact that Microsoft formats also represent de facto standards for electronic document exchange."
The Board recommended that the Danish government take an active role in promoting an open, XML-based alternative for file formats, either by switching to OpenOffice's XML format or launching an EU-wide project to develop a new format.
However, the report recognised that establishing a existing alternative or a new format would be an uphill battle, given that Microsoft Office cannot read OpenOffice documents or other formats. The Board recommended that Denmark begin a series of trials to test the feasibility of introducing open-source software such as OpenOffice.
Open source could also help make public sector software procurement more cost-effective by introducing real competition, the report said. "Proprietary systems entail a strong tie to a single supplier, and in reality this precludes competition," it argued. "User-owned systems are more expensive in actual development, but provide an opportunity for greater competition in continued development, and are therefore cheaper in the long run."
A coordinated plan for using open source could also give governments a stronger hand when the time comes to renegotiate contracts with Microsoft, the study said.
The Danish Board of Technology urged the government to take action, dismissing the lukewarm approach of other European countries: "It is... not sufficient for us in Denmark to follow Britain and Germany, for example, in merely recommending that open source should be 'considered'. A more active decision must be taken in those areas where there is a de facto monopoly."
While the report sparked a heated debate in Denmark, the country's government has not implemented any wide-ranging open source policies, merely reaffirming in a June white paper that it would choose software that offered the best value for money.