The announcement by the Ministry responsible for IT that it is actively seeking open-source solutions came as a surprise, albeit a very welcome one. It signals a shift from our government being bound to and dependent almost exclusively on one supplier, to a more open IT scene, and one which is based on some very healthy practices of openness and competition. It's no secret that the Government's policies in IT will propagate across the private sector, as well as MCAST and the University.
Open source products have already been used by the government, both internally by Government IT workers, as well as in projects delivered by third-party suppliers. Unfortunately this was not a policy, but rather something that just happened, and even kept somewhat under wraps. Its use is much more comprehensive – and open – in the private sector.
Open source software has long since shed its initial image of hobbyist products. Now, industry heavyweights like Oracle, IBM and Sun have put their weight behind open source. Even Microsoft, often seen as the arch-enemy of open source, changed tack and has already released a variety of products under an open source license. Open source software is used by banks, hospitals, stock exchanges, military, and is even happily running up in the International Space Station.
A great analogy for software production is cooking. The source code for a software product is its recipe. The product itself is the finished cake. With "normal", closed-source software you get the finished cake. It tastes great, and presumably it's well-made.
Open source delivers each cake together with its recipe and a lifetime supply of all the ingredients and equipment needed to make it yourself. Not only can you have your cake and eat it, but you can alter it too. Maybe you want to make a low-fat version, or with no peanuts. You can. Cuisine would be boring indeed if everyone who had created a recipe could prohibit anyone from creating any variations of it.
This openness delivers a long list of advantages. Cost is one of them. Open source software leaves the user free to negotiate the best terms with a supplier. One can simply download or share that software (legally) without paying a cent – which is a perfectly good option for a tech-savvy kid who prefers to learn by doing. On the other hand a company or government agency will want the peace of mind of having a formal support contract in place. Even here, open source means that the entity in question can choose between different suppliers, negotiating the terms that suit it best. The government could negotiate a lower rate based on the fact that it has its own IT experts in MITTS who can handle most internal support. This kind of negotiation is only possible because the government has more than one supplier to choose from.
In education, open source software is particularly attractive. A training facility can choose the software it wants, and then supply each student with a free, legal copy of all the software being used in the classes. A beginners' course in the use of office software could supply each student with a free copy of OpenOffice.org. If on the other hand they conduct all their training using Microsoft Office, apart from the school's own costs, for a student to buy Microsoft Office (home & student edition) costs close to €100 each, going up to almost €450 for the full edition. The costs for IT students can be much higher, and if the trainee is not a full-time student, academic prices generally do not apply.
Not only can IT students be given a CD containing all the software they will use, they can actually look under the hood of that software, learning from the experience of thousands of highly skilled IT professionals worldwide, looking into real-world projects with teams of anything from a few to hundreds of developers.
One of the serious concerns about Maltese IT courses is that many of them are almost exclusively based on Microsoft technologies. When job offers start coming out of SmartCity, not all of them will be seeking Microsoft skills. Most will want students with diverse skills. The student who has hands-on experience in Linux as well as Windows, mySql as well as SQL Server, PHP and Java as well as .NET will be much better placed than being one of the thousands who all know Windows, SQL Server and .NET, and only those. Open source allows students to gain as much experience and knowledge as their talents allow, rather than being held back by cost.
An extremely important aspect of open source is that it allows that software to be modified legally and without needing anyone's authorisation. While most users will not particularly care about changing the source code themselves, to an entity like the government, that freedom is very important. The government may well be Malta's biggest economic entity, but on a global scale it's a small fish. If the Maltese government's needs run counter to the interests of a major supplier, it's unlikely that the supplier will go against their own interests. With open source, the government retains a level of independence from the supplier. It could continue using a product that the supplier does not consider sufficiently profitable. It can pool its resources with other countries to maintain a product that it needs, or could outsource support for an important product to the private sector.
Open source software frequently coexists quite happily with commercial software, and indeed there are still many areas where the best products available are not the open-source ones. This is why another vital policy for the government is to insist on open standards. These are computer standards that allow different products to exchange data and work together in a heterogeneous environment. The reason you can send email using Thunderbird and receive it in Outlook Express or Google Mail is that there is a set of open standard for emails. Nowadays there is also ODF as a standard for the exchange of word processing documents, spreadsheets and presentations. Web Services allow web applications written on different platforms to be work together and share data easily. The ZIP file has become a ubiquitous standard for exchanging compressed archives. MP3 files allow music to be used on devices as diverse as computers, portable players and car stereos. It is important that the government insists on such open, free standards for the storage, retrieval and exchange of its data.
This new announcement could be the beginning of an important new phase in the Maltese IT scene and augurs well for the future.