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Should open source be mandatory?

I have mixed feelings on a New Zealand government department's recent stipulation that part of its website must use open source software.

I have mixed feelings on a New Zealand government department's recent stipulation that part of its website must use open source software.

The decision, which has created quite a stir, came in a tender document from the State Services Commission looking for a content management system. It followed the New Zealand Government failing to make an all-of-government deal with Microsoft on licensing, leaving individual government departments to make their own decisions on software and licensing.

The State Services Commission (SSC) says using open source software will be cheaper as the source code used in the CMS system could then be used by other government departments. It also avoids the government relying on a single proprietary supplier. The decision complies with government purchasing guidelines, the SSC claims.

Certainly, the ensuing debate around the story raises some interesting issues.

It does seem unusual to block proprietary-based software, especially since it can come with flexible, open standards and architecture. The SSC might well be blocking itself from the best system available.

And we should remember, open source is not always free. The Australian Senate recently heard that costs associated with open source like changing platforms or support costs could mean it brings no savings.

This appears to be a factor in the European Union watering down plans to encourage the use of open source by members of government.

However, on balance, the SSC is probably right with its stipulation. For years, governments have spent many tens of millions of dollars on proprietary software. They have been an easy cash cow, and with times particularly hard, government has to make savings.

The New Zealand fiscal position is not as healthy as Australia's — the government is borrowing $250 million a week — and savings must be found. Software licensing seems an easy place to start.

At least by moving down the open-source path in this manner, it will help the proprietary suppliers stay on their toes. The enhanced competition can only mean a better deal for the taxpayer in the end, whichever systems are chosen.

Let the SSC do this as a trial. Only then will we know whether it is right.