Migration to FOSS
FOSS promotion strategies via government procurement throughout the world fall into four broad categories. They are:
- Mandating FOSS
- Preferring FOSS
- Mandating Open Standards
- Best Value
This is the most radical approach as it mandates the usage of FOSS systems throughout the government sector. In some countries, this means replacing the entire existing proprietary infrastructure, which involves large implementation and training costs. Although a number of proposals (legislative or otherwise) to this effect have been submitted, to date few have passed. The high costs and risks involved are the main deterrents in this approach. Other countries have chosen the less painful route of mandating FOSS for all new procurement. More conservative approaches such as this are somewhat more common. Countries that mandate the change of only a proportion of the infrastructure over to FOSS include Brazil (80 percent of all systems), South Korea (20-30 percent of all systems) and Thailand. This approach greatly promotes FOSS usage and capacity in the local economy. However, the criticism is that this is done at the expense of the proprietary software industry. Certain economically advanced countries have also criticized such policies as being protectionist and against the spirit of free trade. China has a policy of blocking of foreign software usage in government offices. This does not mandate FOSS per se but it has a strong stimulating effect. The policy considers locally packaged FOSS systems as local software, even if the international FOSS community produces the majority of its components.
Recognizing the difficulty of switching the entire government infrastructure over to FOSS, many governments have moderated their approach by preferring FOSS solutions for the new procurements. When all traditional commercial measures are equal (functionality, TCO, risks, stability, etc.) then the FOSS solutions are selected in recognition of the social benefits, which can be hard to quantify. This approach has the benefit of being easier and less risky to implement. It is also more flexible, allowing procurements to be decided on a case by case basis, taking into account factors such as the possible lack of a local developer pool. However, the weaker mandate may not be enough to counter the advantage that proprietary software enjoy when there is an established proprietary system.
Mandating Open Standards
Mandating open standards often has a complementary effect on FOSS systems. One of the most effective ways in which software vendors lock in their users is the use of proprietary standards. FOSS systems are at a disadvantage in a mostly proprietary software environment due to the lack of interoperability. The mandating of open standards would level the playing field and introduce increased competition, not just between proprietary software and FOSS but also between different proprietary software solutions. However, this often requires modifying procedures and legacy documents that are still stored using proprietary standards. The two areas often targeted by open standards advocates are documents and web standards. Text documents and spreadsheets are typically stored in proprietary formats and may not be retrievable without the proper proprietary software, thus impeding the free exchange of information. Proprietary, closed web standards are ironic, since the World Wide Web is primarily based upon open standards. However, the dominance of a single web browser and its complementary web development tools from the same vendor have resulted in many Web sites being created using non-standards compliant HTML tags that are only accessible using Internet Explorer even though it would take minimal effort to make these sites cross-platform. Emphasis on open standards is strongest in countries with mature ICT industries and infrastructure. The European Union, the United Kingdom, certain states within the United States and New Zealand are among the governments supporting open standards.
The traditional educational structure, starting from primary schools up through to the university level, can often be an excellent training ground for FOSS. There are a wide number of strategies in this sector, too many to be listed exhaustively. Some of the more common strategies include:
- Computer labs with FOSS installed:
- Ensuring that curriculum is vendor neutral:
These projects have been carried out in various countries, through which FOSS has been introduced to students. FOSS systems were utilized to reduce expenses but this also had the added advantage of introducing an entire generation of students to FOSS relatively painlessly. Implementing an initiative such as this requires a minimum level of FOSS capacity within the country to support the school computers.
Many ICT literacy and computer science programs in schools today, even at the university level, are written with a specific proprietary software suite in mind. By ensuring that the teaching of ICT concepts is decoupled from vendor-specific skills, a more level competitive field can be achieved. In most cases, ICT skills can be taught on many platforms. For instance, basic ICT literacy skills such as email, web browsing and word processing can be taught on multiple proprietary and FOSS platforms. It may even be beneficial for students to experience two different implementations of a certain concept (one proprietary, one FOSS) to ensure that the students learn flexible skills that can be easily transferred from one system to another. This does place an extra burden on both educators and students.