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Call for M'sian govt to rethink open source policy

Industry bodies voice concerns that the government's tender process for software purchases may unfairly exclude proprietary software.

A correction was made to this story. Read below for details.

update MALAYSIA--A heated controversy surrounding the government's procurement policy has surfaced in the country, as some industry players voice dissatisfaction over a preference-based procurement policy that leans toward open source.

Industry bodies including the Association of the Computer and Multimedia Industry Malaysia (Pikom) and Computing Technology Industry Association (CompTIA) are calling for the Malaysian government to review its criteria for software purchases.

Under the Malaysian Public Sector Open Source Software Masterplan, the government has stated that its first choice in IT procurement are infocomm technology solutions developed on the open-source platform. It states that "in situations where advantages and disadvantages of open-source software (OSS) and proprietary software are equal, preference shall be given to OSS".

The Malaysian Administration Modernisation and Management Planning Unit (Mampu) is responsible for spearheading the public sector's OSS initiative.

However, some industry consortiums have stepped out to voice their concerns over this policy.

"A procurement policy by the government should be based on merit, transparency with clear evaluation criteria, fit for purpose, value for money and interoperability."
-- Peter Moore
Microsoft's general manager for public policy, Asia-Pacific and Greater China

"CompTIA is advocating technical neutrality in government purchasing of software assets," asserted Michael Mudd, director of public policy, Asia Pacific, CompTIA. Backed by over 20,000 members, CompTIA is an international information and communications technology trade association. Its members consist of software developers, hardware manufacturers, application service providers and commercial software companies, including Microsoft and Novell.

"Any product or service should be chosen for being the most suitable to use," Mudd said. "Open standards, technical neutrality and interoperability are far more important than the business model itself. That's our view."

He added that software and hardware should be procured on their own merits, and must not be excluded by "certain players" because of their business models.

"When you have wider choices, the charges will be lower," he said. "There must be freedom of choice to buy what is most suitable for the job. And every customer, government, and private sector should be presented with an option."

Mudd said that the government should look to widen the participants in the tender process so that the most appropriate technology is available for selection.

Pikom Chairman Lee Boon Kok agrees. "When it comes to procurement, consider all options in open source and proprietary software, all else being equal," he said. More importantly, these ICT products should conform to open standards to ensure interoperability between systems in various agencies and departments, Lee added.

Software is a very complex issue, he said. The government's procurement process should not only include bidding participants from both open-source and proprietary software makers, it should also be clear. The guiding principle should be inclusive and transparent, he stressed.

Lee, however, also underscored Pikom's support for open source as an emerging trend and technology. In fact, the association has an Open Source Special Interest Group (SIG) that champions the cause of the open-source movement in this country, and has contributed significantly to the development and adoption of OSS in Malaysia, he said.

While both parties support the government's OSS Masterplan, Lee and Mudd noted that there must be some flexibility to adapt to future changes in the industry.

The proprietary viewpoint
"Our views as represented by Pikom, are that the government should not dictate which development model--OSS or commercial--should be the preference for procurement," said Peter Moore, Microsoft's general manager for public policy, Asia-Pacific and Greater China.

"A procurement policy by the government should be based on merit, transparency with clear evaluation criteria, fit for purpose, value for money and interoperability," he said.

Moore added that technology suppliers in the software industry should have choice of development models so they are able to best meet the needs of their customers, both in the domestic and international markets.

Commenting on the OSS Masterplan in a May 2005 article, V. R. Srivatsan, Oracle's Malaysia managing director, said that Oracle recognizes OSS is an important development model toward a knowledge-based society. But he noted that there should also be a clear mandate for agencies to hold OSS developers or organizations to the same standards as those for commercial software providers.

Srivatsan said the government's evaluation criteria should include a vendor's support capability and total cost of ownership, rather than just acquisition costs, availability of skills, and legal and vendor risks and liabilities. Oracle recently also reiterated its open-source support, aiming to enhance interoperability between its products and OSS.

Cordelia Lee is a freelance IT journalist based in Malaysia.

Correction: This article incorrectly stated that IBM is a member of CompTIA. While Big Blue was previously a member, it is now no longer part of the CompTIA consortium.