The Initiative for Software Choice, which launched quietly in early May, is chaired by an industry body called the Computer Technology Industry Association (CompTIA), but its biggest software industry backer is Microsoft. Supporters also include Intel and software industry groups from countries such as France, Germany and Peru.
The initiative takes aim squarely at what has become one of the major themes in the software business this year: government use of open-source software, best known as the development model behind the Linux operating system. Governments in France, Germany, Peru and other countries have passed or are considering bills that would encourage the use of open-source software in the public sector.
A representative of CompTIA said that the initiative had arisen because of concern that governments--particularly those in Europe--were creating policies giving preference to open source software. "When governments base their choice on a preference that takes merit out of the situation, that's a concern to us," said Mike Wendy, public relations and policy counsel for CompTIA. "More options are always better."
This week, to coincide with the LinuxWorld Conference and Expo, open-source advocates will unveil a legislative proposal to prohibit the state of California from buying software from Microsoft or any other company that doesn't open its source code and licensing policies.
What marks open-source software out as different from proprietary is the license under which it is distributed. Open-source licenses allow organizations and individuals to use and modify and resell the code, so long as any modifications are given back to the programming community.
Software Choice takes aim specifically at the more aggressive policies, such as those being pushed in California and Peru, which would place restrictions on the state purchase of proprietary software.
"Policymakers should not make rigid intellectual property licensing choices a precondition for eligibility for procurement, nor should they discriminate between developers that choose to license their intellectual property on commercial terms, and developers that choose not to charge licensing fees," states one of the "neutral principles" advocated by the initiative.
While Software Choice's principles rarely mention open source directly, they include a provision that governments should promote "broad availability" of the results of publicly funded research by steering clear of such open-source licenses as the GNU General Public License, used by Linux.
"When public funds are used to support software research and development, the innovations that result from this work should be licensed in ways that take into account both the desirability of broadly sharing those advances as well as the desirability of applying those advances to commercialized products," the group stated. Microsoft and CompTIA argue that an open-source license means that software cannot be commercialized, while open-source advocates say that companies such as Apple and IBM have successfully integrated open-source software into commercial products.
Supporters of open source argue that the software can free governments from a dependency on proprietary document formats, such as those used by Microsoft. Software Choice, on the other hand, will try to convince legislators that open standards and open source don't necessarily go together. "It is important that government policy recognize that open standards--which are available to any software developers--are not synonymous with, and do not require, open source software either for their adoption or utility," Software Choice stated.
A CompTIA representative said that the initiative is building support in the industry and will be increasing its activities gradually. CompTIA, which counts more than 8,000 high-tech and communications companies as members, has recently lobbied against further sanctions against Microsoft in its ongoing antitrust trial.
Open-source advocate Bruce Perens said that Software Choice's policies are a deceptive campaign designed to lock open source out of the public sector. "Their policies are written to maintain an unfair bias for proprietary software in the market," Perens wrote on the Web site Sincere Choice, which he created to oppose Software Choice's lobbying efforts.
"Legislation tends to favor proprietary software over open source, since open source has only recently attained a significant role in business," Perens stated.
The arguments used by Software Choice, he pointed out, closely mirror those used by Microsoft in lobbying against a Peruvian open-source bill earlier this year.
In a March letter from Juan Alberto Gonzalez, general manager of Microsoft Peru, to congressman Edgar Villanueva, Gonzalez said the bill would break the law by establishing "discriminatory and noncompetitive practices in the contracting and purchasing by public bodies."
Gonzalez also said that the bill would "discourage the local and international (software) manufacturing companies" by favoring open source over proprietary development models. "Open-source software... tends to have an ever-weaker economic impact, since it mainly creates jobs in the service sector," he wrote.
In a recent speech delivered to the Government Leaders' Conference in Seattle, Microsoft chairman Bill Gates likened the concept of open source to anti-capitalism. Warning developing countries against using software based on the GPL, Gates said those who put development time into it are denying themselves the benefits of essential taxes.
"The so-called (Free Software Foundation)... says that these other countries other than the US should devote R&D dollars in the so-called open approach, that means you can never commercialize that software," said Gates.
Gaining ground in Europe
Despite such rhetoric, European governments have become increasingly interested in open-source software as a way of reducing costs and maintaining independence from monolithic software suppliers such as Microsoft. A recent European Commission report recommended that European administrations should share software on an open-source licensing basis, to cut soaring e-government information technology costs which, it says, are set to rise by 28 percent to 6.6bn euros (about £4bn) this year. (The report is available on the EC Web site.)
In July the UK government said it would consider open-source software in a bid to avoid getting locked in to proprietary IT products. The policy affects central government, local governments and the wider public sector, including non-departmental public bodies and the National Health Service.
In June, the French government contracted with Linux vendor MandrakeSoft to increase the use of open-source software and support at all levels of government. This followed a deal between the German government and IBM to promote open-source software at the federal level.
Microsoft did not immediately respond to a request for comment.
ZDNet UK's Matt Loney contributed to this report.