June 20, 2003

South African Open Source Proposal

The South African government has come out with a proposed strategy for using open source software. While it mostly talks about open source and at the moment is mainly discussing investigation and pilot programs, it is still an interesting document to read.

The goal is mainly to level the playing field between proprietary and open source software: "discrimination and prejudice will be avoided in software procurement procedures, making choices based on merit, thus giving OSS and proprietary software (PS) equal opportunities to be selected." And, "Government will implement OSS where analysis shows it to be the appropriate option. The primary criteria for selecting software solutions will remain the improvement of efficiency, effectiveness and economy of service delivery by Government to its citizens."

However it does go on to say that "as OSS offers significant indirect advantages, opting for OSS will be preferable where the direct advantages and disadvantages of OSS and PS are equally strong, and where circumstances in a particular situation do not render such preference inappropriate." So it's not an OSS quota bill, but an OSS affirmative action bill. It's all quite reasonable and if you substitute "open data formats" for OSS it is a good example of how to phrase such things to indicate your intent without forcing a policy that is too inflexible.

The government is also getting behind OSS for its own work: "Full implementation of the OSS model imples that we not only acquire and use the freely available software, but also contribute to development," so therefore the proposal states, "Where no inhibiting factors exist, the OSS model will be adopted for development of Government systems and such systems will be developed to run on OSS platforms."

The benefits listed for open source are the typical ones, most of which are debatable: cost, security, empowerment of local software companies. The list does, however, include "Access to Government data without barriers of PS and data formats."

The proposal does not talk much about open standards specifically. It does state in the Executive Overview on p.3, "Open standards will be a prerequisite for all software development, thus contributing to the ease with which OSS can be implemented and adapted." Since there is no alternative given, and the rest of the proposal is very realistic about the possibility of complete OSS adoption, I assume this was meant to apply only to software that the government develops itself. Although later, on p. 27, it says, "The guiding principle of using open standards will apply for all Government software procurement, development and maintenance." It's not defined how specifically the principle will be applied to software procurement.

The definition of open standards, on p. 30 of the proposal, is quite strict, including:

  • Available for all to read and implement.
  • Free for all to implement, with no royalty (except possibly to a standards body).
  • No discrimination from certification organizations except for technical reasons.

This is taken from (and credited to) Bruce Perens' definition, which also expands on each principle.

The glossary and historical appendix are well researched and are worth reading.

NewsForge ran an article by Tony Stanco [6/18/03] from the Center of Government & Open Source, supporting the South African government's proposed strategy. Stanco suggests charging companies a 5%-10% "non-compliance fee" if they don't use open standards and open protocols. It's an interesting idea and it's good to focus on open standards instead of open source, but it seems out of kilter with the cautious tone of the South African proposal (which makes no mention of a non-compliance fee).

The South African proposal, and Stanco's analysis, were discussed on slashdot [6/18/03].

Posted by Adam Barr at June 20, 2003 09:46 PM | TrackBack