Deciding what lies at the heart of some countries' almost-zealous uptake of open source is not as simple as looking at the cold, hard costs — politics, national security, anti-Americanism and innovation all have a part to play.
Despite the hype generated by Microsoft's unavoidable 'Get the Facts' ad campaign, the reality is that government agencies often see the actual cost of open source software as less important than other factors — such as adopting open standards, avoiding vendor lock-in and encouraging the local software industry.
The actual cost of software is less important in the West than in the developing world. Experts claim that proprietary software fees are relatively low compared with the potential labour costs associated with migrating to open source software. Licence fees generally account for 5 percent to 10 percent of the total cost of ownership in wealthier countries, while maintenance, integration, support and training represent 60 percent to 85 percent of total costs, according to Rishab Ghosh, programme leader of an open source research project at the Maastricht Economic Research Institute on Innovation and Technology (MERIT) in Holland. The remaining costs are due to the cost of related hardware and software, he claims.
So, if it's not about the money so much, why have governments in Europe, particularly France and Germany, apparently leapt on the potential of open source so enthusiastically?
One reason may be that governments are tired of being held to ransom by proprietary software makers and armies of consultants. Open data formats are more open and avoid vendor lock-in, says Ghosh. "It is no longer considered to be acceptable for the public to pay money to read information from the government," he says. "Also, with proprietary software, organisations tend to be locked into vendor-driven upgrade cycles. This is something that governments and IT managers are increasingly unhappy about."
Also open source is often way below the governments' radar, but promoting its use can be a relatively simple and populist measure. "Politicians love open source — they can make a lot of statements without spending any money," says François Bancilhon, the chief executive of Linux distributor Mandriva.
When it comes to the apparent gulf between US and European adoption of open source, things are not clear cut. Red Hat, the largest open source player in the market is, after all, American. But so far high-profile uses of open source software in US government have been isolated, with Massachusetts leading the charge most recently.
Some analysts claim the French government's interest in open source is driven by anti-Americanism but French officials claim that it's actually down to a fundamental difference in philosophy.
A good look at how different states in Europe have approached open source, compared with the historically technically advanced US, reveals that "getting the facts" isn't as straightforward as some companies would have us believe.
- The UK: Confused but enthusiastic
- United States: Open source too close to socialism?
- France: Liberté, égalité... open source?
- Germany: Munich leads the desktop charge
- Norway: Fjording the open source rift
- Spain: Extraordinary Extremadura
- Poland/Eastern Europe: Community equals communism?