Opening Doors in Cars and Government

The dust is finally beginning to settle here in the Linux blogosphere following all the recent brouhaha emanating out of CES.

The tents have been packed up, the jugglers have gone home, and bloggers can finally hear themselves think down at the blogosphere’s Broken Windows Lounge once again.

Spirits are lifting across the land, in other words, and a few choice headlines have done nothing but help.

First there was “The open-source car: automakers eagerly woo app developers” over at PCWorld; then, just a few days later, it was, “Help a US gov’t agency switch to open source, win $3 million” at the Register.

Is there anything better than cheery open source news to elevate a FOSS fan’s mood? Linux Girl sure doesn’t think so.

‘Where Is the Source Code?’

Ford and GM, first of all, both used CES to open up their in-vehicle infotainment systems to third-party developers through what’s sometimes been referred to as “open source” app programs.

That, however, may not be quite the right term for it.

“I did not see anything here that actually means ‘open source’ in my book,” Google+ blogger Kevin O’Brien told Linux Girl. “Where is the source code for Ford SYNC? Didn’t Microsoft write this?

“It looks like the car companies have published APIs and are begging developers to write apps to them, but I will call this stuff open source when I see the source code released and licensed under an OSI-approved license,” he added.

Indeed, “it doesn’t look like these car systems are actually Open Source, it just looks like they’ve been opened to third party developers,” Google+ blogger Linux Rants agreed. “That’s a great idea too, but not on the level of Open Sourcing their platforms.”

‘A Huge Smack’

Consultant and Slashdot blogger Gerhard Mack wondered if the move was related to the passage “by a whopping 86 percent” of the “Right to Repair” bill in Massachusetts last fall.

“Auto makers have been given a huge smack by consumers, and hopefully this is a part of them waking up,” Mack suggested.

In any case, the US government’s move was much more clear.

‘Information Will Be More Secure’

For those who missed it, it’s the U.S. Department of Veterans Affairs behind the government effort. Specifically, the agency wants to upgrade the 25-year-old VistA software that powers its nationwide healthcare system, and it’s sponsoring a contest toward that end, with hefty rewards for winning developers.

“This contest marks a major change in direction by VA, away from software that is so customized that only VA can use it, toward open standards and commercial systems that build on proven practices,” Eric Shinseki, Secretary of Veterans Affairs, said in a statement.

“A great thing” is what Linux Rants called the move.

“Making it Open Source means that your information will be more secure and that the system will never get bogged down in bureaucracy like the previous system did,” he explained.

‘The Odds Are Low’

Similarly, “it is great they are looking to improve VistA and bring it into the 21st century,” agreed O’Brien.

“When people talk about finding ways to make health care more efficient and less expensive, this is the kind of thing they should be talking about,” O’Brien added.

The feasibility of the project, however, is another question, Slashdot blogger hairyfeet pointed out.

“You should probably add a minimum of two zeroes to get what it will actually cost to clean something that old up,” hairyfeet explained. “You are probably looking at a good two dozen-plus formats, programs written by guys who are dead or long gone — just the conversion from their old junk formats to something FOSS can read will cost more than 3 million.

“Why don’t they offer a billion?” he concluded. “The odds of ANYBODY pulling that off are so dang low they might as well.”

‘The Niche Business Method’

That, of course, remains to be seen. What was clear to most bloggers is that open source is the right way to go.

“The benefit of Free, Open Source software is clear; it can continue to evolve even when there is no business case for doing so on the part of the original developers,” Hyperlogos blogger Martin Espinoza offered, for example.

“Eventually, closed-source software is going to be the niche business method,” Espinoza added.

‘One Just Pays the Programmers’

“Yes, that’s the right way to do IT,” blogger Robert Pogson agreed. “By paying programmers to write FLOSS and sharing the result, large organizations of all kinds can get IT done for less money. Rather than paying shareholders, CEOs of mega-corporations and their salesmen and spies, one just pays the programmers.”

We’ve seen similar strategies before, Pogson pointed out.

“Sun, for instance, bought the StarOffice/ business cheaper than a round of Wintel PCs with M$’s office suite,” he recalled. “They shared it with the world so it is insane to pay M$.”

‘Money Would Be Better Spent’

In general, “if every large business/organization/government paid programmers instead of M$ and ‘partners,’ the world of IT would be a much better place,” Pogson opined. “Not only would business be more efficient, but taxpayers’ money would be better spent.

“Having FLOSS programmers on the payroll guarantees continuity, since a project can always be forked if new directions are required rather than replacing software systems at great cost and risk,” he explained. “How many times have we read of $billion projects aborted after years of implementation that ended in failure?”

In short, “with FLOSS, one can be sure a project is under budget and not far behind schedule because the project is open and transparent,” Pogson concluded.

‘Powerful Incentives’

The primary benefit of open source is ownership, suggested Chris Travers, a blogger who works on the LedgerSMB project.

“By that I mean the right to use the software to create new products and services,” he explained. “This leads to slightly different incentives in private and government work, but these are both powerful incentives.”

In the private sector, for instance, “building a new product or service on a platform one does not truly own carries with it some significant risks,” Travers explained. “The basic issue is that software is easily duplicated, so copyright holders of commercial software tend to have additional ways of ensuring that they maintain control over how a given program is used.

“This means that when you are using software to run operations, you are limited by a EULA, and when you bundle the software in things you make (like cars), there are more intrusive contractual obligations there,” he added.

With open source, on the other hand, “the manufacturer gains control over these areas,” Travers said.

‘A Matter of Sovereignty’

Of course, “an operating system on a car which may hand over control to Microsoft might be concerning, but when it is an air traffic control system or a warship, this is a major problem,” Travers pointed out.

So, “for governments it is very much a matter of sovereignty, and open source means the ability to control internal operations rather than have private companies exercising very deep control of this sort,” he said.

Bottom line? “None of this surprises me,” Travers told Linux Girl. “In fact, I think that the public sector and appliance computing markets are really the most natural homes of open source software. I am sure it will continue to make even greater strides in these areas as time goes on.”

Katherine Noyes has been writing from behind Linux Girl's cape since late 2007, but she knows how to be a reporter in real life, too. She's particularly interested in space, science, open source software and geeky things in general. You can also find her on Twitter and Google+.

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