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Open source=political suicide?

The whole story surrounding Massachusetts former CIO Peter Quinn and his decision to step down as CIO after his controversial decision to adopt the Open Document Standard (ODF) for the state government really bothers me.

The whole story surrounding Massachusetts former CIO Peter Quinn and his decision to step down as CIO after his controversial decision to adopt the Open Document Standard (ODF) for the state government really bothers me. Not because I am surprised by the outcome, but because of the precedent it sets and the chilling effect it will probably have on decision-makers who might think about an alternative to Microsoft.

While I will freely admit I do not know all the grisly details involved in the decision regarding the choice of ODF for the state, my research tells me that some people felt the decision was made without enough input from others, which resulted in a lack of buy-in among the relevant parties.

Whether this is true or not, it will be hard to ever know the complete truth. Personally, I'm not sure you can get 100% percent buy-in on anything, particularly in an organization as complicated as state government. And I'm not sure that 100% buy-in would have solved Quinn's problems, because the decision he made was going to cost a certain company a lot of money or was going have to change its software to support a standard it didn't create or want to support.

Anytime you make public decisions that are not only costly for a major statewide vendor, but also can be viewed as an act of defiance, you are looking for trouble. No company, (monopoly or not) is going to take that one sitting down, and they are going to go down fighting or take you down first.

While I thought that Mr. Quinn's decision was bold and inspiring to many open source proponents, it was in fact a declaration of war. Quinn is a casualty of that war and it's quite possible that Massachusetts' ODF standard will become another casualty, even though the state says it will implement it as planned.

So what is the lesson from this saga? That any attempt to implement open standards in government is political suicide? The answer is maybe; but it depends on how you go about it.

My personal philosophy on this one is that if you are going to go up against such a powerful force, you either need bring an equally powerful force with you, or you prepare to fight a guerrilla war.

For instance, had Mr. Quinn said that the state is going to become an all-Oracle state, from backend to desktop; the tale might have ended differently because you would have money fighting money.

On the other hand, if you aren't about to swap out one huge major software vendor for another, then in my opinion, you need to take a far subtler approach. The first thing you do not do is blow your own horn with a huge announcement. You need to keep quiet about it, and win the hearts and minds of the populace without them even realizing you have done it.

The way to do it is not from the desktop, but from the back office. Start with things the end user doesn't see or care about: DNS servers, Web servers and the email servers. They (the end users) continue to use the same front ends--desktop and email clients that they are used to--while you start to exchange the plumbing out from under them. Done correctly, this can happen without anyone noticing. And if you do it during a period in which you have paid for a volume license of the back end stuff, no one is the wiser (particularly the software vendor whose tools you are replacing); you will reap your savings later when you choose not to renew.

Later, you can turn your attention to replacing the file systems and the database servers (if you choose to go whole hog). This is a bit trickier because applications can depend on them, but it can be done. Mind you, this process doesn't happen overnight, but takes time and careful planning.

Once you have liberated the back office, then the desktop is ripe for the taking. By then you can document successful implementation and usage over a period of time and also show the cost savings. Now, you have ammunition and probably some fellow believers because you have been working the steering committee all along--haven't you?

As open source continues to make headway and increase awareness through its adoption in private sector companies, it will become easier to stick one's neck out and make those far-reaching decisions. In the meantime, it will take death by a thousand cuts rather than a frontal assault should you wish to avoid political suicide and actually stick around to see your plans come to fruition.