Let innovation drive procurement policy

Industry experts urge regional governments to choose innovation over development models in software procurement.

KUALA Lumpur, Malaysia--Software procurement policies should be based on innovation, rather than software development models, industry experts say.

Speaking at an innovation forum organized by the Business Software Alliance (BSA), Robert Holleyman, CEO of BSA, said governments should be technology neutral in software procurement so as to facilitate innovation in their domestic markets.

"Governments should select software based on its merits, not on software development models," he told some 40 delegates comprising key government IT officials in Southeast Asia.

Julian Ding, managing director of consulting firm First Principles, noted that software companies innovate to respond to customer requirements. However, when policies favor one technology over another, not all of those needs may be met, he said.

Arun Mahizhnan, deputy director of Singapore's Institute of Policy Studies (IPS), is also for neutral procurement policies. "However, the caveat is governments cannot act in a totally objective fashion. It has political, social and economic considerations."

Notwithstanding, Mahizhnan noted that governments should ensure no company has a monopolistic rein on the market. This is because if countries are dependent on only one software vendor, they may be stuck with legacy systems in later years, he stressed.

In setting procurement policies, Ding pointed out that governments are "highly complex creatures" that take on multiple roles--it is a buyer of technology and a driver for change, he said.

"That complexity must be recognized. Procurement policies merely fulfill the government's buying function, but policies will affect the development of the IT industry," Ding noted.

For example, he cited France's choice of its Minitel network as a substitute for the Internet in the 1980s, where the takeup of that service failed. During the same period in Brazil, where foreign players were not allowed into the local software industry, innovation declined. "They did not get access to the latest technologies and they were so comfortable that innovation dried up," Ding said.

But today, some developing countries have software policies that favor open-source products over proprietary ones. Indonesia, for instance, announced a plan two years ago to adopt open-source software in government departments with its Indonesia Goes Open Source (IGOS) program. The program aims to develop Indonesia's local software industry and curb high piracy rates through the use of open-source software, according to Engkos Koswara, assistant deputy for networking development at Indonesia's Ministry of Research and Technology.

So far, the program has fostered software development and innovation in Indonesia, with increased development work done by universities and research institutes, Koswara noted. For instance, an IGOS office productivity suite developed by local programmers would be distributed to government departments over the next three years.

Malaysia is another country that has been a keen adopter of open-source software. Under the Malaysian Public Sector Open Source Software Masterplan, the government has stated that its first choice in IT procurement are IT solutions developed on the open-source platform.

Open standards
Participants at the forum also agreed that adopting open standards in software procurement would level the playing field for all vendors. With open standards, developers would be able to produce competing products that work equally well in any IT environment.

However, Mahizhnan from IPS cautioned governments against setting standards too early as they rush toward modernization and progress. They may miss out on future technology developments brought about by other competing standards, he explained.

Mahizhnan urged governments to only consider standards that are adopted worldwide, so as to ensure interoperability of documents and IT systems on a global level.

Benoit Muller, director for software policy in BSA Europe, added: "Because (IT) is such a fast-evolving environment, I think it's best to let the market drive which standards prevail over time as opposed to picking winners and losers."