An explanation of open source phobia in the public sector and large corporations

Bulgaria recently adopted a law stating that software developed for the public sector should be open source (techcrunch.com). That got me thinking: open source adoption in the public sector is extremely slow in general. Decision makers seem to show signs of a phobia when it comes to using open source or encouraging their suppliers to develop open source solutions. Here is a subjective and cynical explanation of where I think this phobia comes from.

No-brainer for the public sector

From a moral point of view, it should be a no-brainer that software paid by tax payers should be available to the public in the form of open source; of course, an exception to this would be software for use by the military.

Western countries spend large amounts of money on foreign aid. That money will be used to fund an operating state and the underlying software infrastructure in developing countries. At the moment, western countries pay for their closed source solution and give money to developing countries to enable them to buy the same closed source solution. By directly going open source, less money will be needed. And, we will all get a big pat on the back for our generosity and moral integrity.

Open source is everywhere

As stated above, fear of open source software is mostly an issue in the public sector and large corporations. Modern tech companies have been using open source and contributing to open source for many years now. And the result can be seen everywhere on the internet. Almost every familiar website and service that builds the internet uses open source. Not just one open source program, but multiple layers of open source software. The whole issue of rejecting or even condemning open source becomes totally absurd once you realize that you cannot use the internet without having to rely on open source software.

The reason for the fear of open source

How can the public sector, or corporate decision makers, still have this illogical fear – phobia – of open source despite its global success story? The answer is quite simple:

Damnant quod non intellegunt.

Loosely translated into a common proverb:

They fear what they do not understand.

From my experience in the past years, there are three tangible issues that lead to not understanding: demographics, background in technology (tech savvy), and marketing.

Reason 1 – Seduced by marketing

The marketing efforts of closed source software companies is an underestimated issue, but it can be experienced first hand during a software vendor’s (Powerpoint backed) presentation at a workshop or event. Without much reflection, new buzz words are taken from these presentations and used in every conversation for the following weeks. And that is exactly what the marketeers wanted to achieve! Every time the decision maker uses their new-found word, he/she is reminded of that presentation; and every time people show an impressed reaction to that newly acquired knowledge, it supports the message in that presentation.

Open source on the other hand, can only argue with its “inner values.” Those are mostly quality and efficiency. Inner values stand no chance against perfectly crafted presentations held by highly trained marketeers in expensive suits. And we all know that marketing, not quality, wins most of the time.

Reason 2 – Demographic

A user’s demographic background also plays an important role due to their past experiences with software. Often, decision makers are from an older demographic. They grew up in a time when there were only closed source software solutions available; they were socialized with closed source, so to speak. We should not forget that the idea of sharing program code, open source, is only about 20 years old. And the first 10 years of that time frame has produced some ugly software. If your only encounter with open source was a Linux destop 15 years ago, or a first generation Netscape browser, you can easily get the wrong impression.
But in the last 10 years, open source, thanks to financial backing from philanthropists and tech companies, has evolved and grown into professional and reliable software solutions. Nowadays, every big tech company backs at least one open source project.

Reason 3 – Not tech savvy

OK, so not every 50+ year old has an open source phobia. Some of them are still interested in technology, or work as excellent engineers. They have less reservations towards new ideas and technologies. And they will make use of tools that help them to do their job. There is no discrimination between open source and closed source. If open source does the job better, then open source it is; and, of course, that works the other way around too, if a closed source software solution is better suited to the job at hand. But sadly, engineers are generally not the decision makers.

The next generation will bring change

From the perspective of a seasoned software engineer, there is no hope that the widespread open source phobia of the current management generation or decision makers will go away. Illogical fear or phobia cannot be undone by logical arguments. Closed source is the heritage of the current generation of decision makers.

Once the generation who have grown up with open source fill those decision makers’ chairs, things will change and we will see the widespread adoption of open source in the public sector and large corporations.

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