POSTSCRIPT / December 3, 2006 / Sunday


Philippine STAR Columnist

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Bill forbids gov't using commercial software

TAMA NA!: Somebody should tell the pack of Speaker Jose de Venecia to stop their desperate maneuvering to convert Congress into a Parliament — to give the old dog a new collar — and install the same discredited characters in the new legislature.

Local elections are already scheduled in May 2007, yet power-hungry congressmen egged on by Malacanang insist on canceling them and holding instead elections for Parliament in November next year.

Can they change the rules in the middle of the game just like that?

These politicos talk of change, of reforming the system, yet they insist on shifting to a Parliament with themselves still strapped to their seats. Ano ba yan?

We the people do not figure in their partisan plotting. They just talk among themselves. Who will stop the madness? And the costly distraction?

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FREE RIDE: A bill is being pushed in Congress forbidding all government agencies and state-controlled firms from buying and using any of the computer software sold in the market!

The proposed law — to be called “Free/Open Source Software (FOSS) Act of 2006” — commands government offices to use only information and communications software that are given away for free and have no restrictions as to their use.

The objectives appear to be to save money for the government and to encourage the making of free (non-commercial) software.

But I can also hear in the background a call to an unholy war against multinationals whose popular software run virtually all — maybe 95 percent? – of the computers of the world.

(Pardon this little note for the uninitiated: Hardware is the computer and everything else that the user can touch. Software is the program or set of commands that makes the hardware work.)

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TECHNO TRAP: The measure sponsored by Rep. Teodoro Casino (Bayan Muna) plays on complaints that computer software is expensive. It feeds the mendicant attitude that being a developing (meaning poor) country, we should have these technological tools for free.

I checked with PC Express yesterday. Their Windows XP Home costs P4,890, while the MS Office 2003 version is P13,570. If there are friendly pirates still lurking in your neighborhood, hot copies will cost you only P150 each.

The proposed FOSS law wants to do better than the pirates. It mandates that all government offices and corporations use only FREE and OPEN operating systems and programs.

It seems to me the congressmen behind FOSS want the government to join their ideological fight against multinationals, even at the risk of pushing it into a costly and disastrous technological trap.

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COSTLY CROSSOVER: It is all right to convince a computer-owner to throw away his Windows and install instead another operating system. This is a free country.

Technically, it is safe to install a free/open program in a computer if the hardware and the software are compatible. If installed properly, the software can make the machine work.

We are talking here of a stand-alone computer, or even of several units in a local area network using compatible software for doing an assortment of related tasks

But try doing a massive crossover to FOSS for the entire government and all government-controlled firms, and then try working the usual links of the country to the rest of the world. That could spell disaster.

Such a legislated crossover could be more effective than the rebellion, secession, and destabilization of the combined forces of the enemies of the state in ensuring the collapse of the government.

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MORE EXPENSES: To say that such a massive crossover is for free or to come at no cost to the government (to taxpayers) is misleading.

The only thing free is the software. The sponsors imagine a situation where software is donated to the government by benevolent souls who had labored to create such technical and intellectual property but do not want or need anything in return.

Consider the nitty-gritty of maintenance, training and support, which entail a pretty big sum on a do-it-yourself basis. How can these post-installation expenses be managed without cost to the government?

The proponents want to save money, but do not seem to realize that maintenance, training and technical support cost more than the purchase price of commercial software.

Such post-installation expenses are minimized when one buys time-tested technology backed by warranty and technical support. The government will turn its back on that value when it embarks on the FOSS adventure.

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INTEROPERABILITY: The proponents of FOSS should list, if they could, all the software that they are sure are free, open and useful. These are programs that are given away absolutely for free and can be modified and redistributed without the original creator(s) minding it.

Such a list should also show their demonstrated interoperability. The programs must be able to connect and function with one another as well as with the rest of the wired wide world without missing a beat.

When installed, everything FOSS must work. Otherwise the entire government and all state-controlled corporations will be paralyzed, or cut off from one another and the electronic world outside.

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FOSS HITS LOCALS: The bill sponsors must have thought they were doing local software makers a favor by attacking the multinationals that have been depicted as blood-sucking ogres.

But will professional programmers be willing to create software, then give them away for free and renounce all rights to have a say when these are rewritten and redistributed?

The sponsors must have been surprised to discover that local software companies themselves are against the bill. Siempre, the FOSS bill will kill their business and their enterprise.

Information from the Philippine Software Industry Association shows that the combined revenues of its almost 100 members reached $100 million in 2005. Much of that revenue came from commercial software, which somebody paid for to use. Will they give that up?

Now FOSS wants to stop government — the biggest user — from paying for software that has been helping it operate more efficiently and catch up with the rest of the world.

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PCS REACTION: The Philippine Computer Society, composed of the country’s leading info-tech professionals and practitioners, said of the FOSS bill:

“We strongly believe that decisions to run open source or commercial software should be based on a careful assessment of the needs of the institution, viability, total cost, mission-criticality, and support.

“The Society therefore maintains that the public, especially government and educational institutions, should remain free to use the technology and software which they deem best suited to their needs.

“Government policies should remain neutral and promote choice and competition as it is through competition where innovation thrives and new, revolutionary products emerge.

“The Society is committed to support the development of a globally competitive Philippine IT industry. We believe that only campaigns and initiatives that ensure and enhance — rather than restrict – freedom of choice and competition, can promote the welfare and boost the growth of the IT industry in this country.”

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MICROSOFT SIDE: Reacting to the bill, Microsoft Philippines said:

“Like the rest of the technology industry, Microsoft strongly believes that governments and users of technology should be free to use the software and other technologies that best meet their needs.

“Government policies that limit such choice, or that promote one form of technology over another, can deprive users, including governments themselves, of the best solutions, and the full benefits of available technologies, stifling both competition and innovation, and potentially impairing economic development, productivity and growth.

“Microsoft Philippines’ desire to help organizations and people realize their full potential is the foundation of our continuing commitment to provide integrated innovation — and great business value — in the products and services we offer, as well as the training programs that we initiate under Unlimited Potential, Partners in Learning and our other community programs.

“We continue to prove the value of our software to every customer — including governments — and are committed to giving the best products with the best long-term value.

“Microsoft shares the Philippine government’s vision to develop and nurture a vibrant IT industry in the country. We are firm believers in the value of commercial software and the innovation and opportunity that the commercial software industry provides. We hope to continue to work in partnership with the government in programs that aim to upgrade the technology skills of our manpower and positively impact our economy.”

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(First published in the Philippine STAR of December 3, 2006)

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