Should the Federal Government Use Free Software?

Use of free software may not be less expensive that using Windows. Some federal agencies are still going with the “free” version though

At first glance, most people would say “yes” assuming that the software has not been illegally copied and adequately performs the functions needed by the agency.

But the answer may not be that simple.

Microsoft, as one might expect, thinks that using free software is a bad idea. Using free software is bad for Microsoft but is it a bad idea for the government?

According to a recent article in the Wall Street Journal, the primary dispute revolves around the use of Linux. Linux, for those readers who don’t read computer or business magazines, is free software. It can be used instead of Windows, the program that runs the vast majority of personal computers in the Federal Government.

There is a catch with using Linux. While it is free and the code is open and any agency’s computer experts can go into the program and make modifications, use of the software is covered by a General Public License (GPL). Under this license, any changes or improvements made to the code must be freely shared with other users.

This catch is why the use of Linux is not a good thing for government agencies according to Microsoft. When innovations are free to the public, there is no incentive for companies to create new products and innovation and creativity will dry up.

The Microsoft argument has won over some adherents including Rep. Adam Smith (D-WA) who has written a letter urging agencies not to use any software subject to the general public licensing requirement. (Smith has received large donations from Microsoft’s political action committee.) Several Congressman have also written to the person in charge of computer security for the Office of Homeland Security urging the government to continue past practices by “explicitly rejecting licenses that would prevent or discourage commercial adoption” of software developed under federal contracts.

Moreover, Microsoft has released a study that shows using Windows is cheaper than Linux as the initial price is only a small portion of the software cost. Most of the cost is related to paying the computer technicians to install it and keep it running which, according to Microsoft, costs considerably less when using Windows.

Microsoft also objected with the National Security Agency when it used Linux to develop new programs. NSA did not change its position though and the software has been posted on the NSA website for anyone to download according to the Journal.

With the huge number of dollars spent by the government each year on software, look for the lobbying to continue while the issue plays out.

About the Author

Ralph Smith has several decades of experience working with federal human resources issues. He has written extensively on a full range of human resources topics in books and newsletters and is a co-founder of two companies and several newsletters on federal human resources. Follow Ralph on Twitter: @RalphSmith47