Alex Hudson

Thoughts on Technology, Product, & Strategy

Month: February 2009

Government Action Plan: Open Source, re-use, etc.

Just the other day, the UK Government published a new paper entitled “Open Source, Open Standards and Re–Use: Government Action Plan” (amusingly, they’re also tracking the tag #ukgovOSS to get responses – so there we go!).

I’ve had experience with the previous consultations: the various versions of the “open source policy” which, at best, were statements of non-discrimination and said very little positive, and the various explorations into default routes for exploitation which as far as I can tell resulted in very little. There was also the abortive “Open Source Academy” whose page is still online but I dare not link for fear people might think it relevant.

I think in general it is extremely positive that the Government continues down this path. In the interests of full disclosure, the company I work for (and co-own) does a lot more public sector work than most, and we do supply Government with open source solutions (we’re currently developing a national-level bespoke database system, as an example). I’m very biased in seeing them procure more open source, because that’s what we want to sell, but also I know how much money we’ve saved the various organisations we’ve worked for (I don’t put this down to open source per se because it’s more complex than that, but it’s in there).

But in the interests of trying to be constructive, there is still a lot wrong with this. Let me go through some of the big issues which leap off the page.

The policy on proprietary software says that Government will take into account “exit, rebid and rebuild costs”. I’m not totally sure why these costs are seen as specific to proprietary software – they’re very much not – I don’t see any way this can be assessed objectively and fairly. I fear this is going to be little more than a nod to later costs; what is really required is a working exit strategy from day one.

Second, the policy of “The Government will look to secure full rights to bespoke software code [etc.]” is really pretty wrong-headed. Our business has been on the receiving end of this policy already because it’s actually pretty common, and the “full rights” translated into the language of lawyers effectively means “we will own the exclusive copyrights/etc. to the stuff you develop for us”. This has a number of side-effects which I doubt those who drafted it realise.

The first is that it completely disadvantages those who actually develop software and hold copyrights. When you give up ownership, you lose all your rights to that work. That means you can no longer re-use what you developed – which wouldn’t be true of any supplier of software who didn’t own the IPRs in the first place.

The second side-effect is that the later “Where appropriate, general purpose software developed for government will be released on an open source basis” is basically a nonsense. Let’s be real about this: no-one in Government is going to be going around releasing stuff as open source on a regular basis. Indeed, Government should not be doing that: it’s not a software house, and it doesn’t have the expertise or the competency to do it. The original developers are the ones who should be doing it.

What’s worst about this aspect of the policy is that it underlines that fundamentally, Government has missed a key aspect of what open source is about: that you don’t need “full rights” in order to be in control. Let’s stop calling it open source for a moment, and call it free software. This means you have the freedom to run it, distribute it and modify it (in any combination). Government doesn’t want the copyrights: Government wants the freedom. As a tax-payer, I applaud that whole-heartedly. So please, don’t ask for the copyrights: ask for the freedom.

I really welcome the approach that Government is taking here, but I do feel that a couple of tricks have been missed. Hopefully they will realise that from reading this – always happy to attend another Government consultation, guys 😉

Thunderbird & calendars

When the new “MailCo” (as it was at the time) was announced, the first thing they did was poll people on what changes they should be looking to make to Thunderbird as kick-ass as possible – you can see from the initial launch blog post that integrated calendaring was item #1 on a list of new features.

Now, only one year on, the word is that calendaring won’t be integrated or bundled at all – in fact, it gets worse, because the calendar developers have also announced that a number of full-time developers have been lost. Doesn’t say why, but I’m assuming you can blame the Global Downturn™.

I can’t express what a huge mistake I think this is for Thunderbird. One of the main reasons I got involved with Bongo was to provide a calendar server for my day job’s choice of mail client (Tbird), and when Jonny produced his CalDAV code things were really looking pretty sweet.

The problem for me comes down to basically one of maintenance. Extensions that you can install are great, but they have a tendency to bit-rot and suffer versioning issues. Even on Firefox you have issues with a version upgrade making an existing extension wobble or fall over; and with Tbird3 being developed at a more rapid pace, there is a real problem there.

The calendar devs can only concentrate on one thing, and it seems like that one thing has to be a plug-in. In my opinion, a non-working calendar in Tbird3 ought to be a release blocker, but that is now off the table. I have to say, if Evolution on w32 was a viable option, I think that’s where we’d be looking right now, but I’m going to reserve judgement until Tbird3 releases.