Open source needs culture club

The big variation in official attitudes to open source reveals the cultural differences across the world. Getting to grips with this is a high priority

Our survey of official attitudes to open source has revealed a whole spectrum of responses, from excitement through to hostility. The more logical may be confused by this range of reactions. The arguments for and against open source all ostensibly centre around good, solid facts — capital and operational expenditure, security, flexibility, interoperability — and these don't change much between territories. Software is software and open source is built by people who understand software very well.

What these Spock-like individuals may miss is that government is not a logical entity, for all it operates under that fig leaf — it's a cultural creation and thus very sensitive to culturally tuned inputs. In the new European democracies, for example, a suggestion that open source harks back to communism will do far more harm than any number of spreadsheets can repair.

For an in-depth look at how governments around the world use open source click here.

It's no good complaining about this: it's far better to roll up one's sleeves and get stuck in. Microsoft maintains large teams of lobbyists and spends many millions each year on influencing official policy around the world — and open source has neither the cash nor the cohesion to mimic that.

Proponents of open source shouldn't despair: the whole movement is a dazzling demonstration that there are other ways to get good results, politically as well as technically. The rejection by the European parliament of the software patents proposal is one example of this, but it's a mistake to see that as anything more than a skirmish. Such successes need to be built on, their lessons learned and the enthusiasm used to prepare for the next fight.

That means educating the politicians and their supporters in ways attuned to the local culture and even getting actively involved with one party or another. Although for open source supporters party politics might seem an unpleasant idea — iconoclasm is second nature to many.

Take comfort from the fact that Microsoft felt exactly the same way in the days when it was so geeky that it neither understood nor cared about the machinations of power. That changed overnight when the company was found guilty of anti-trust violations and Gates saw that politics was a game he couldn't afford not to play.

Which is just as true for everyone else. Making the best software is only one part of the equation: understanding the people who have to decide about it is just as important. Culture, not compilers, is the next big hack.