Open source software has recently emerged as the frontrunner for many industries as the primary method of code production, as it is widely predicted to provide more options for its users in a quicker, quality improved, and cost effective format than the more traditional proprietary software. Linux, the dominant player in the market, is a considerable threat to the Microsoft operating system, which has successfully established itself in the global market. Beyond its commercial potential, open source software possesses a potential goldmine in the government sector. However, questions regarding security and privacy continue to plague government officials in their pursuits of this option. The following discussion will provide an overview of open source software as well as proprietary software and their primary components, an evaluation of government options in relation to the products available on the market, and the social construction of open source software vs. The technological determinism of proprietary software.
Discussion of Open Source Software
Open source software is distinctive in that it provides its users with free access to the object code as well as the source code, and when modifications are made, they must be made available to interested parties within the community. The primary criteria that distinguishes open source software from all other programs are the following (Lerner and Tirole 821):
The program must be distributed royalty free
All program modifications must be distributed under the same terms as the license of the original software
The source code must be released and made available to interested parties
In addition, open source software is subject to a strict code review process, which provides additional security measures for its users. As more people gain access to its code, they can identify flaws or errors in the system (Fisher 21).
However, it is also known that with every piece of software, there are disadvantages to its use. In the case of open source software, even the most brilliant programmers cannot escape the potential security breaches that may exist with this type of software. According to Farrow, "OSS programmers aren't generally paid to writer the software they maintain. These programmers are paid by becoming well-known for writing great software. Including backdoors would be the kiss of death for a programmer. Even security-related bugs hurt an OSS programmer's reputation" (73). Furthermore, Neumann states in an article by Fisher that "Unless there's a great deal of discipline underlying the development, there's no difference in the security. Open source is not inherently more secure. If everyone has the same bad skills, all the eyeballs in the world won't help you. Unless there's discipline, you still come up with garbage" (40). Some experts argue that the key components of secure software are attention to detail and careful coding, and that both proprietary and open source software can be very secure if carefully written (Fisher 20). This demonstrates that the knowledge of the programmer can strongly influence the security potential of a given software product.
One question that is raised in the utilization of open source software is why the product is given away at no cost to other users. A simple explanation may be that users find significant value in the product since it is much easier to manage open source software since it does not possess strict licensing requirements, such as those placed on Microsoft products (MacVittie and MacVittie 15). This is logical, since the cost of using the traditional Microsoft operating system can be excessive if a new license must be purchased for each user. Cost is more than likely one of the chief motivators in the decision to use open source software over the traditional proprietary methods.
The Linux operating system is the chief product that many new open source customers consider as their primary choice. Many IT experts find that Linux is more powerful when enthusiasm is brought into the picture (Zetlin 38). Therefore, learning the ins and outs of the system can take some time and may require some work beyond normal business hours. For this reason, training in Linux and other similar open source offerings should be a primary concern for IT professionals in order to improve its potential and to reduce the possibility of security flaws.
The potential cost of ownership of open source software is highly dependent on the business environment of the firm in question. According to Wheeler, "OSS/FS isn't cost-free, because you'll still spend money for paper documentation, support, training, system administration, and so on, just as you do with proprietary systems. In many cases, the actual programs in OSS/FS distributions can be acquired freely by downloading them. However, most people will want to pay a small fee to a distributor for a nicely integrated package with CD-ROMs, paper documentation, and support. Even so, OSS/FS costs far less to acquire" (33). In addition, when upgrades are necessary to improve upon the system's existing features, these typically cost less than for proprietary systems (34). Total cost savings that may result from the implementation of an open source system can be tremendous, and typically range over $10,000, and can potentially increase to $250,000 or more, depending on the size of the firm and other external factors (36). Finally, Wheeler indicates that "as the number of servers increases, proprietary solutions become increasingly costly. First, many proprietary systems (including Microsoft) sell per-client licenses; that means that even if your hardware can support more clients, you must pay more to actually use the hardware you've purchased. Secondly, if you want to use more computers, you must pay for more licenses in proprietary systems" (35). Therefore, businesses and others that consider open source software must perform a cost-benefit analysis to identify the potential cost savings that may result from its use.
Wheeler also discusses the strict licensing policies that are forcing some Microsoft customers to reevaluate their options because of the increased cost: "Microsoft's recent licensing policies may accelerate moving away from Microsoft...this new license program has engendered a lot of resentment among Microsoft's customers...enterprises are realizing that the majority of their users are consumers or light producers of information, and that these users do not require all of the advanced features of each new version of Office...unless Microsoft makes significant concessions in its new office licensing policies, Sun's StarOffice will gain at least 10% market share at the expense of Microsoft Office by year-end 2004. Because of these licensing policies, by year-end 2003, more than 50% of enterprises will have an official strategy that mixes versions of office automation products - i.e., between multiple Microsoft Office versions or vendor products" (11). Microsoft's strict licensing policies are proving to serve more harm than good to many customers, and as a result, some are beginning to turn their backs on their primary provider in favor of a more cost-effective solution.
In general, it has been demonstrated that open source software provides numerous benefits to its users, including potential cost savings and the freedom to change the code when circumstances require. Security issues will always be of primary concern, but experts in the field that possess the appropriate knowledge should be able to reduce these possibilities and to satisfy customers. A discussion of proprietary software will now be presented.
Proprietary Software: Advantages and Disadvantages
Proprietary software is defined by the Wikipedia encyclopedia in the following manner: "Some individual or company holds the exclusive copyrights on a piece of software, at the same time denying other people the access to the software's source code and right to copy, modify, and study the software" (1). Proprietary software remains under some form of control at all times in regards to distribution and use. In any case, one of the most important factors of proprietary software is its quality in relation to the source code and potential security breaches, made possible through various flaws in the system (Butler Group 2).
The most popular form of proprietary software on the market today is the traditional Microsoft operating system, which has managed to infiltrate businesses across the globe in dramatic fashion. As technology continues to develop and improve, the Microsoft product has been subject to much scrutiny for its potential flaws as well as its often highly expensive cost. Since the system is exclusive from one user to the next, the costs of purchasing additional user licenses can be often prohibitive and can interrupt the business plan. In today's economy, this concept is not cost-effective and can potentially stall or reduce business growth. These are some of the primary reasons why many users are switching to open source software to cut costs and to manipulate the code in their own way.
Other disadvantages to using proprietary software also exist. According to an article in the Spyware Weekly Newsletter, "German tech news portal tecchannel is reporting that when users of Windows XP use the Windows Update web site, it transmits a list of installed software and the hardware configuration of the machine to Microsoft. Using custom-built software which takes advantage of an undocumented function of the Windows API,…