Trade group: Free-to-obtain software has long-term costs

Governments looking to save money should consider total cost of ownership, report says

Government agencies looking to save money by using software with no up-front purchase cost should fully consider the long-term expenditures for using those products, a new report said.

During the current global recession, all levels of government may be tempted to explore software that's free to obtain, said the report, released Tuesday by the Association for Competitive Technology (ACT), a trade group generally supportive of proprietary software models. But the ACT report doesn't specifically discourage government agencies from using open-source or free software; instead it encourages agencies to consider costs such as support, downtime and management.

The report's goal is to help "avoid creating any kind of expectations that there is such a thing as a free lunch in IT," said Braden Cox, a co-author of the report and research and policy counsel at ACT.

The total cost of ownership for open-source and free software has been long debated, but the report also looks at advertising-supported software and software bundled with hardware that's sold. In some cases, software available for free collects data about users, the report said, and users should consider their privacy and security, as well as the sustainability of the software's business model, before adopting the freely available products.

But Peter Corbett, CEO of marketing consultancy iStrategyLabs, disagreed with some of the conclusions in the report. The report questions the sustainability of some business models involving freely available software, but Corbett suggested those software companies may be no more at risk than companies selling proprietary software.

Open-source companies, in particular, have established business models for providing support to freely available software packages, he said during a discussion of the ACT report. Asked if government agencies can hold open-source software accountable, Corbett noted that government agencies don't sign contracts with open-source projects, but with companies that stand behind open-source software.

Government agencies shouldn't pick software based on the philosophy behind the software but on what works best for their needs, added Robert Atkinson, president of the Information Technology and Innovation Foundation, a tech-focused think tank. In some cases, open-source software may be the best tool, and in other cases, proprietary software may work best, he said.

"Those decisions ought be made on an individualized basis, not on the basis of an overarching general principle," he said.

Tom Schatz, president of the advocacy group Citizens Against Government Waste, agreed. When one audience member suggested government agencies shouldn't be adopting the "flavor of the month" no-cost software package, Schatz agreed that agencies need to consider the total cost of ownership.

While government agencies shouldn't give preference to no-cost software, they also need to be frugal, he added. "We'd be happy, and so would the taxpayers, to save money by finding the least expensive, and yet most effective software, regardless of what it is," he said.

Beyond the debate of open-source versus proprietary software, governments should focus on open standards and on releasing as much data as they can, added Corbett. If the U.S. government releases data using open standards, private companies can innovate by providing tools to make use of that data, he said. Several firms are using local crime statistics to create Web-based maps for tourists and local residents, he noted.

"Ultimately, the government should be an open data platform, and publish everything that's not secure," he said.

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