Philippine open source community takes on Microsoft

The local open source community, long engaged in a simmering cold war with Microsoft Corp., the world’s biggest champion of proprietary software, has come out with guns blazing to publicly dispute the statements made by officials of the software giant on open source software (OSS) early this month. This formal declaration of war has kept the country’s electronic groups and mailing lists abuzz with the expected Microsoft-bashing reactions from OSS advocates.

Microsoft officials fired the first salvo when they said the government can benefit from commercial software from a total cost of ownership standpoint since deploying their products is more cost-effective than using Linux, one of the most popular open source operating systems.

“Linux is a collection of different technologies from a broad range of different organizations that doesn’t have a support mechanism or the technology direction or commitment from an R&D perspective,” said Michael Rawding, Microsoft president for the Asia-Pacific region including Japan.

“Repeatedly, when people use it, they find that they have to spend a lot more time in the underlying plumbing of the technology.” Ahmed Chami, Microsoft director for the South Asia region, added fuel to the fire by saying that putting its faith on OSS alone would be dangerous for the government to do since it is not a proven model and cannot guarantee success in the future.

OSS advocates and Linux users were also irked by the implication that open source software would stifle the growth of the local software development industry and discourage the generation of jobs as well as the establishment of new software companies in the country.

“Open source software is the intelligent alternative,” said Emmanuel Amador of Distributed Development Network, an open source-based development service company.

“It is enterprise-ready and will help jumpstart the local software development industry. Linux is free, mature, stable and secure, and can be freely modified.

“In contrast, Microsoft’s Windows operating system is prone to crash, susceptible to viruses, cannot be modified by users, and is very insecure.”

Amador said Microsoft is the one holding back the progress of the local software development community by locking developers out of the development process through its closed, proprietary software model.

“Also, its licensing and intellectual copyright restrictions make it almost impossible to examine and reuse existing proprietary software code to produce derivative or customized software or to improve existing proprietary software, forcing developers to spend valuable time and resources “reinventing the wheel,” added Amador.

Sacha Chua, a computer science student at the Ateneo de Manila University and an open source advocate, echoed Amador’s sentiments. In her e-mail posted at the ph-linux-newbie mailing list, Chua said depending on closed software products will prevent the country’s developers from learning more and from actually creating complex systems.

“Closed source software may be responsible for billions of dollars invested in research and development, but those are invested in a relatively small number of people while all the rest do not benefit from the knowledge gained because this is guarded jealously instead of being shared,” she wrote.

She continued: “It may be responsible for millions of jobs over the years, but it is also responsible for the loss of even more jobs. Its costs may seem to be lower than open source alternatives but that is still money that leaves our shores and goes out of our industries. It is money not invested in local jobs, training and education. It is money that perpetuates our dependency on closed source software.”

In terms of price points, OSS advocates said open source alternatives would always be cheaper to deploy, contrary to what Microsoft claims.

They pointed out that a lot of money would be saved in software licensing fees alone.

They argued that purchasing licenses for proprietary commercial software is becoming increasingly prohibitive as these cost more than twice what one would pay for the computer that runs them. And despite large discounts given by companies like Microsoft, the acquisition, maintenance and upgrade of licensed software on the government’s part would still amount to millions of pesos.

“As ordinary Filipino citizens and taxpayers, we are concerned that our government may be wasting hundreds of millions of pesos on expensive software when cheap or free alternatives are already available,” noted Amador.

He said public institutions could better spend the funds that currently go to pay for such proprietary software by using these for their constituents, public service, and charitable and humanitarian projects.

OSS proponents also cited the other benefits of using open source software for both the public and the private sectors: more cost savings in hardware requirements and hardware upgrades; privacy and national security protection; avoidance of all software piracy issues; faster and simpler development and deployment; creativity and better understanding for student programmers; more control over the direction of software development; training and community support; and availability of mature applications.