EC report backs open source for government

European governments should create a pool of open-source software to co-develop and share between themselves, says the Commission

European administrations should share open-source software resources, according to a report published on Monday by the European Commission.

The report, called Pooling Open-Source Software, recommends that European administrations should share software on an open-source licensing basis, to cut soaring e-goverment information technology costs which, it says, are set to rise by 28 percent to 6.6bn euros this year.

Pooling would be achieved by a clearing house, to which administrations could "donate" software for reuse, according to the report, which was financed by the Commission's Interchange of Data between Administrations (IDA) programme. This facility, which would concentrate on applications specific to the needs of the public sector, could encourage the replication of good practice in e-government services.

The report is bound to infuriate software companies that preach the mantra of closed, proprietary software. In a speech delivered to the Government Leaders' Conference in Seattle, Microsoft chairman Bill Gates likened the concept of open-source software to anti-capitalism. Warning developing countries against using software based on the General Public Licence (GPL), which much open-source software uses, 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 commercialise that software," said Gates.

However, the increasing attention paid to open-source software by the European Commission and by individual European governments is likely to influence decisions taken elsewhere in the world, where the European Union provides significant amounts of aid.

This latest study goes further than any other in recommending open-source software for government, suggesting that software developed for and owned by public administrations should be issued under an open-source licence.

The study does not say that European governments should use off-the-shelf open-source software from companies such as Red Hat, but rather focuses on specialised software produced in-house by public authorities. Such software is typically used for the administration of roads, hospitals and public health, education, tax payment and recovery, justice, and territory management.

There are three reasons for considering open-source pooling, according to the report's authors: economy, quality and philosophy. From an economic standpoint, a pool of open-source software should realise the best value for citizens' money, say the authors. Maintenance costs should also be reduced, as existing applications -- for which the source code is often not available to governments -- tend to be costly and difficult to maintain. Furthermore, it makes sense to share new software developments rather than to develop nearly identical solutions separately in each country.

Quality would be assured by the sharing of code between development teams, say the authors. The idea of an open-source pool would speed up innovation by using funds "to develop really new applications and not to reinvent parts that have been already developed by others." Countries would also be able to benefit from the advances of other countries.

Finally, say the authors, the pooling of open-source software would promote collaboration between European nations.

The full report can be found here.

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