The European way of open source

European open source companies can write grant proposals, and spin their wheels telling government what it should already know, as well as anyone else.

One thing I have learned at the Open World Forum is that Europe's approach to open source is highly political, but not in the way you think.

Here governments may either encourage open source or not. Either way, companies which succeed with open source get wrapped up in a bureaucratic process from which there is no escape.

Nathalie Kosciusko-Morizet (right), secretary of state for economic development – IT in the conservative government of President Nicholas Sarkozy, accidentally illustrated the problem in her introductory remarks to the conference's main session.

“I want open source to be well treated by France's investments of billions in IT,” she said through a translator. “I launched an invitation to tender to learn more. The public consultation will be published Friday.”

The government also offered loans. “Some thought all our money would go to big companies,” but small open source companies also got a taste. “The ability to benefit from these loans shows the maturity of open source in our country.”

With all due respect Madame, no. What you have demonstrated instead is that open source experts can write grant proposals, and spin their wheels telling government what it should already know, as well as anyone else.

You can build a contracting business in this way, but at the cost of your corporate soul. Governments and contractors pretend these grant-writing and proposal-writing services are free. They are not. They come out on the back end, in the form of inflated costs and fees. This is where the famous $1,000 toilet seat comes from.

I'm not saying America doesn't have these problems. Anything but. Washington is becoming a megalopolis thanks to corporations sucking at the government teat. But those companies then find it hard to live any other way. They have built costs into their structures that competitive enterprises don't have.

An example is NHIN-Connect, a program I covered at HIMSS. Built by government contractor Harris Corp., it's great for moving military health records to the VA. But it's too inefficient to be of use to the private sector, which is why the government is now working on NHIN-Direct, a set of common standards that will let the Internet be used for health records, through specialist health ISPs.

To build competitive open source companies, you have them develop in the competitive market. Even Europe's friends of open source can find themselves spoiling the industry they wish to build.

A better way for government to go might be to do what some American governments do, which is to take a permissive approach. Let your people use open source, where it's appropriate. Let them contribute to open source projects. Then, when they're ready, let them leave for competitive enterprises.

Later, friends in the analyst community told me France's attitude toward open source is actually more positive than that in other countries, and that the French open source industry is growing well. That may be true. Drawing conclusions from just the words of politicians can be a mistake.

My point is that if you grow as a government contractor, that's all you know, and the real world will remain a mystery.

NOTE: My plane fare and hotel costs in Paris were picked up by the Open World Forum upon my return.