Editorial: Reviewing the case against open source

In this week’s special report, you will read numerous reasons for agency officials to set aside their reservations and migrate to open-source software. But to play devil’s advocate for a moment, perhaps it is worth remembering why people have such reservations in the first place.

Let's start with risk. Every software package comes with risk, as we are reminded every time Microsoft or another software vendor releases a patch to fix security or performance problems. The publish-and-patch process is hardly ideal, but it works in the long run because the market economy creates accountability: Vendors that fail to fix flaws will eventually find themselves out of business.

That is why government officials feel more comfortable with brand-name vendors. It's not their marketing might that is appealing but their staying power. It's the thinking behind the phrase, "Nobody ever lost his job for buying [fill in vendor name] products."

Another big concern is support. Executives at the largest software vendors tend to be on a first-name basis with top government officials. When Defense Department leaders, for example, are interested in fixing a problem or adding functionality to a product, they know company executives will listen.

Open-source applications have been put to the test in various nooks and crannies of the government and corporate markets, but that is not likely to impress chief information officers at large organizations. They want to know they will have the support they need when they need it. Now that a few pioneering agencies have adopted open-source software, the real test begins.

The bottom-line issue is accountability. CIOs considering a move to open-source software need someone to hold accountable — someone who has the resources to address any problems that occur.

Two guest columnists in this week’s issue (see "Willis: Resistance is futile" and "Adelstein: Linux use drives innovation") make eloquent cases for open-source applications that go beyond the usual evidence of lower costs. It’s difficult not to be swayed by their arguments, but no one should fault government officials for playing it safe.

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