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UN Report Says FOSS is Better
Monday, February 02 2004 @ 07:33 AM EST

MyDoom demonstrates that open source/free software is safer, and now OpenSector.org reports that a UN study says it's better for a number of other reasons as well [Update: the link no longer resolves, but you can still obtain the UN study from the UN (PDF) and the section on benefits from FOSS begins on page 21]:
The report says that OSS software is better for four primary reasons:

  • More people looking for defects means more defects are found and fixed.
  • Free from marketing considerations, developers release more fixes and improvements, more often.
  • Proprietary software does not guarantee quality, in order to avoid legal liability.
  • Source code availability allows users to fix, customize or improve on their own. The report includes a summary of free and open source software policy development and activity in nations throughout the world."
The United Nations Conference on Trade and Development's "E-Commerce and Development Report 2003", chapter 4, "Free and open-source software: Implications for ICT policy and development", is available as a pdf from a link at the OpenSector.org article.

One of the areas that the report focuses on is security, and since that is the topic of the day, here is what they say:
Security of public data is a leading concern of Governments, particularly in the wake of recent worldwide computer virus attacks and growing fears of cyberterrorism and cybercrime, as well as spyware. At a minimum, introducing diversity into the base of functioning software code reduces the possibility of catastrophic failures caused by viruses that attack a software monoculture. [emphasis added]
It is now accepted, the report states, that there is a need for public and open standards for software applications and data files that handle public information, and for more reasons than the obvious -- that it isn't fair to require citizens, who have a right to access public data, to pay high prices to a monopoly provider in order to effectuate that access:

Software that is used to handle public records, taxation or, in the future, voting may need to follow FOSS standards. . . .

With closed-source proprietary software and date file formats, should the vendor choose to discontinue support for technical reasons (e.g., because maintaining backward compatibility is burdening the source code of current and new versions) or financial reasons (e.g., an unsatisfactory revenue stream or bankruptcy), public offices may find themselvese forced to upgrade hardware or software (often both) or convert to another system, with the resulting cost implications.

The advantages of FOSS are not limited to lower costs only:
The question is what regime for ownership and distribution of IT tools best serves the interests of developing countries and of the global economy as a whole. To think of FOSS as simply a less expensive alternative to proprietary software misses an important aspect of what FOSS enables. In an FOSS environment, the degree to which a software tool can be utilized and expanded is limited only by the knowledge, learning and innovative energy of the potential users and not by exclusionary property rights, prices or the power of countries and corporations.
Here is are a few more excerpts:
What is FOSS, and how is it different from proprietary software products...? A simple analogy to any popular cola drink can be helpful. . . .

You can buy cola soda and you can drink it, but you cannot understand it in a way that would empower you to reproduce the drink or improve on it. . . .

Patents, copyrights, licensing schemes and other means of restricting knowledge give legal backing to the notion that economic rents are created and that innovators can and should appropriate some proportion of those rents as incentives to innovate. Without IP protection, should a 'new and improved' formula be discovered, the person who invents the new formula would have no defensible economic claim to a share of the profits that might be made by selling drinks engineered from the innovation. That person no longer has a financial incentive to innovate in the first place, so the system unravels and improved cola is never produced. . . .

The production of proprietary software is typically organized under a similar regime, with parallel argument behind it. When purchasing software, for example, people or companies do not own the software in the sense that they can do with it what they wish. The right-to-use license permits them to use proprietary software on a computer, but only under very specific terms; they cannot reproduce it, modify it, improve it, or redistribute their own version of the software to others. . . .

The open-source process inverts this logic...."Free" in this context means the freedom to run the programme for any purpose, to study how it works and adapt it to one's own needs, to redistribute copies to others, and to improve the programme and share improvements with the community so that all benefit. It does not necessarily mean that the price is zero, since FOSS can be traded in markets just like any other artifact.

The key elements of the open source process, as an ideal type, are voluntary participation and voluntary selection of tasks. . . . Software suport for new hardware in the proprietary software world is often conditional on a forced "choice" to upgrade and pay anew for licenses.

The chapter concludes that while no single software can be better in all areas and ways, because that depends on the needs of the user, all things being equal, "software with fewer serious bugs and a lower total cost of ownership is generally preferable on simple economic grounds." It has a table that shows that of the 20 "most robust Internet servers", only one runs on proprietary software.

It also talks about total cost of ownership, and points out that while training may be needed at first, over the lifetime of the software, that training cost is not ongoing, and in the developing world, labor costs are low anyway. Further, having the source code means you can fix things yourself, if you don't want to sign up for support services, or hire external support from "a competitive market anyone can enter." The report says that "even Microsoft" reportedly admits that the cost of software licenses amounts to only 8% of the total cost of ownership and the other 92% is for costs of installation, maintenance, management, and repairs after failures. And finally it says this:

What seems clear is that FOSS can help a business or public institution avoid getting locked into a vicious cycle of hardware and software upgrades and changes in data formats that require investing in new license fees and significant retraining and can provoke major down time.
It says one more thing that indicates the future: "Proprietary software is rarely seen taking market share away from open-source solutions where FOSS solutions exist." 43.7% of German companies and 31.5% of British companies reported using FOSS in 2002. Nearly 40% of large American companies and 65% of Japanese corporations uses GNU/Linux in some form, the report states.

One final point I found interesting. They state that most software developers do not make money from selling licenses for proprietary software. That perception comes from the few who "can charge monopoly prices". Most software isn't sold in boxes to customers. Most software is written for inhouse use, code that is "so highly integrated with firms' business and IT environments that reusing or copying the code 'as is' is difficult or unfeasible." From that standpoint alone, they say, FOSS is the obvious choice. The authors do not fully grasp the GPL, not that that is a rare phenomenon, but they do understand this much:

The current debate often pits proprietary licensing against the GPL. Commercial software producers argue that promoting the GPL means locking out any software development from possible future commercialization. As the previous section indicated, the bulk of software revenues come from customization, servicing or hardware, or all of the above bundled in solutions. Indeed, IBM did earn $1 billion on the back of GPL GNU/Linux. Finally, proprietary licensing allows only the owner to commercialize the intellectual property at stake and makes it inaccessible to anyone else. Anyone seeking to redistribute a derivative version of a proprietary programme would be prohibited from doing so under the terms of the license. Thus, the formal outcome is not that different from that of the GPL (Lessig 2002). In terms of ICT strategy and its relation to innovation and development, there have been indications that the proprietary model may encourage excessive copyrighting and patent hoarding, with the final outcome being reduced investment in research and development (R & D) activities and a decline in innovation as funds for R & D are redirected towards patent acquisition and royalty payments (Bessen 2002, Bessen and Hunt 2003).
In short, the report is a rather clear answer to Darl McBride's letter to Congress on multiple levels.

  


UN Report Says FOSS is Better | 151 comments | Create New Account
Comments belong to whoever posts them. Please notify us of inappropriate comments.
UN Report Says FOSS is Better
Authored by: photonic on Monday, February 02 2004 @ 07:58 AM EST
I think you can't really claim that Mydoom proves that opensource is safer than
closed software. Yes, linux might have some better options for locking users
down, but this shouldn't be impossible to do with windows either once they fix
Outlook. Remember that 90% of people still use windows so viri will target that
platform. Once Linux gains world domination and all the stupid users who click
on attachments have switched linux will probably have more virus problems too.

[ Reply to This | # ]

Finally...
Authored by: Anonymous on Monday, February 02 2004 @ 08:01 AM EST
Oficialdom talking sense. Wonders will never cease. Next thing you know Darl
will be making sense :)

[ Reply to This | # ]

UN Report Says FOSS is Better
Authored by: nvanevski on Monday, February 02 2004 @ 08:02 AM EST
How about the Box 4.1 which explains the viral nature of GPL? Part of Microsoft's dictionary in the UN report? I like the rest of the report - very clear and unbiased. Maybe someone could explain the LGPL to these folks, though.

[ Reply to This | # ]

UN Report Says FOSS is Better
Authored by: pooky on Monday, February 02 2004 @ 08:25 AM EST
Great. That practically guarantees the US doing something to legislate that FOSS
is not to be used by the US government.

Bah humbug.

-pooky

---
Veni, vidi, velcro.
"I came, I saw, I stuck around."

[ Reply to This | # ]

SCO's site is back.
Authored by: danamania on Monday, February 02 2004 @ 08:37 AM EST
Just as a note, SCO's site seems to be back up now under the alternative name of http:// www.thescogroup.com

dana

---
--

[ Reply to This | # ]

UN Report Says FOSS is Better
Authored by: Stumbles on Monday, February 02 2004 @ 09:16 AM EST
It's well known Microsoft for whatever reason has chosen to ignore long standing security issues and it really doesn't matter which version of their OS you want to use as an example. The security issues with Outlook and it's brother are not the only ones Microsoft chooses to overlook. IE still has many security problems, this site here has some examples;

http://www.safecenter.net/UMBRELLAWEBV4/ie_unpatched/index.html

It's also clear to me any thing Microsoft says about security is only done with market speak and is intended only to divert attention. How they came up with 30 days as a reasonable number to issue updates/patches is IMO a good example.

[ Reply to This | # ]

In other news...
Authored by: Jude on Monday, February 02 2004 @ 09:21 AM EST
...Microsoft lobbies for disbanding U.N.

[ Reply to This | # ]

UN Report Says FOSS is Better
Authored by: Anonymous on Monday, February 02 2004 @ 09:27 AM EST
Is this the same UN that had Syria as the President of the Security Council? Or
is it the UN that has Libya leading its Commision on Human Rights?

[ Reply to This | # ]

Translated into Portuguese
Authored by: Anonymous on Monday, February 02 2004 @ 09:38 AM EST
This article were translated into portuguese at Propus.

Este artigo foi traduzido para o portuguÍs em Propus.

[ Reply to This | # ]

Linux / FOSS software not better
Authored by: Anonymous on Monday, February 02 2004 @ 10:20 AM EST
People easily forget: Linux is not better and FOSS software is no better than Windows or other closed source software. All can be vulnerable.

What is better than traditional closed source software development is the new process that open source offers a software package to improve, harden and ever remain vigilant, fresh and up-todate.

We should never forget that it's people who matter -- not software, bottom lines or corporate interests. Would Groklaw exist in its present, popular form without Pamela? Or all the folks who help her? Doubtful.

-- JS
(too in-a-hurry for login)

[ Reply to This | # ]

UN Report Says FOSS is Better
Authored by: DFJA on Monday, February 02 2004 @ 10:30 AM EST
One of the biggest things pro Windows is ease of installation of products (yes, it is also the detriment because viruses have free reign). Tell me about portinstall/ portupgrade/ debian/ rpm and tell me how I can get the *real* average user to remember his root password as well as his normal login when he wants to install or upgrade an application. One easy way round this, which I use on one of the systems I administer is to set the root password to be the same as the user password. One password fewer to remember, but you still have to type it in if you want to install anything as root. On this particular system I am the only user so this is not a problem. So robust security without the inconvenience that windows puts you to (except for the ease of being able to guess the root password if you know the 'user' password, which on this particular system I do not consider to be a problem). Of course for those who set their distro to auto login they will probably not remember what their password is anyway, so they can't install new software/viri at all. Either way, it's far easier to have convenient security in Linux than it is in windows.

[ Reply to This | # ]

UN Report Says FOSS is Better
Authored by: DFJA on Monday, February 02 2004 @ 10:31 AM EST
One of the biggest things pro Windows is ease of installation of products (yes, it is also the detriment because viruses have free reign). Tell me about portinstall/ portupgrade/ debian/ rpm and tell me how I can get the *real* average user to remember his root password as well as his normal login when he wants to install or upgrade an application.

One easy way round this, which I use on one of the systems I administer is to set the root password to be the same as the user password. One password fewer to remember, but you still have to type it in if you want to install anything as root. On this particular system I am the only user so this is not a problem. So robust security without the inconvenience that windows puts you to (except for the ease of being able to guess the root password if you know the 'user' password, which on this particular system I do not consider to be a problem). Of course for those who set their distro to auto login they will probably not remember what their password is anyway, so they can't install new software/viri at all. Either way, it's far easier to have convenient security in Linux than it is in windows.

[ Reply to This | # ]

FOSS for voting machines
Authored by: Thomas Frayne on Monday, February 02 2004 @ 11:14 AM EST
Last week there was a news article that warned that voting machines might
contain malicious code that could influence elections. If that code is
proprietary, the malware could go undetected, with disasterous results for our
political system.

We need all voting machine code to be FOSS.

[ Reply to This | # ]

UN Report Says FOSS is Better
Authored by: Anonymous on Monday, February 02 2004 @ 11:14 AM EST
Arguments about cost, architectural advantages, etc. will never be settled, but
those discussion miss the entire point.

It's sad and shocking that the U.N. seems to ignore the most important feature
of open source software, namely the transparency of storage formats and
resulting universal accessiblity of data.

Storing data in proprietary formats created by software vendors is akin to using
invisible ink readable only when using special glasses sold by the people who
sell one the invisible ink. Worse is when the vendors of the ink change the
formula, necessitating that you buy new glasses.

Imagine if the English language were owned by a single company and could be
arbitarily modified for their profit?

Our technology necessitates extensions to our grammar. Our grammar should be
free, transparent, and mutable by common consent, else we lose our freedom of
expression.

If commercial vendors would cease attempting to own customer data by giving up
their prediliction for secret writing, we'd have nothing to argue about.

[ Reply to This | # ]

If we ban Linux, world will ban Microsoft
Authored by: Anonymous on Monday, February 02 2004 @ 11:15 AM EST
I wonder if Microsoft will come in against Darl's attempt to ban Linux in the
U.S. Here's what will happen.

If Congress accepts Darl's arguments and bans Linux, the GPL and other free
software, the rest of the world will retaliate by banning Windows and other
proprietary software. The U.N. itself may lead the way with this.

In short, Microsoft will find itself locked out of non-U.S. markets.

Since the U.S. market is already saturated, Microsoft's growth will come to a
standstill. Can Microsoft prosper, even survive, solely with the U.S. market?
Can any other proprietary software company?

What would the impact be on other U.S. companies forced to use Microsoft and
dealing with non-U.S. markets where Microsoft is unavailable?

Would it stop just with software? Do you think the world would love to have an
excuse to ban not just American software but all other American products as
well? Can you say "trade war"?

Economic development is proceeding outside the U.S. Raw materials and a more
educated populace will enable non-U.S. citizens to do quite well without U.S.
products. I think India is an example of this. As development increases, the
U.S. will find itself competing more and more for the world's raw materials.

So, in my view, perhaps the rest of the world is actually hoping Congress does
ban open source software. It will be just the provocation they're looking for to
move against the U.S. in other areas.

(Signed.

an American Linux user who believes in an interdependent world.)

[ Reply to This | # ]

Kinda OT: Media industry fears MS lock-in?
Authored by: Jude on Monday, February 02 2004 @ 12:10 PM EST
Everyone knows that Microsoft badly wants to be a major player,
prefereably the *only* player, in the media-delivery business.

There's an article in The Reg that suggests the media industry is wary
of playing Microsoft's game:

Apple and Microsoft to sing from same digital music sheet?

"In any case, music industry staff have long told us they are very keen
not to allow the Beast of Redmond to control the technology on which
their future fortune may be based."

[ Reply to This | # ]

One should really compare three alternatives
Authored by: Anonymous on Monday, February 02 2004 @ 02:48 PM EST

Although I don't want to take anything away from open source, it seems to me that this debate would be more interesting if three alternatives were considered, instead of two. Those alternatives would be:

  • Open Source
  • Proprietary in today's IP environment ("today's proprietary")
  • Proprietary in a sane IP environment ("sane proprietary")

One problem is that we consistently compare open source with today's proprietary, which isn't a very ideal comparison, in my view. Software, being so much a discipline of building upon other software for a huge number of levels, is particularly susceptible to having innovation stifled by the various IP monopolies/roadblocks that get created in the hierarchy under current law. In my view, the real benefits and losses TO THE PUBLIC of current IP law need to be rethought in the software context, where there is no much layering of one thing on another, such that a single IP "monopoly" can block so much other work. It seems clear to me that current implementation of IP law is a huge net negative for society in the area of software. In the absence of sensible overhaul of the relevant IP laws, however, it seems clear to me that Microsoft has pretty much shown that today's proprietary software, at least for foundation stuff like operating systems, has drawbacks which are ultimately fatal for customers, and which will grow more so. But, in my view, that stems more from the monopoly status and the way that monopolies play out more than it stems from the for-profit business model per-se.

I think the comparison would be much more interesting for "sane proprietary" vs. open source. Unfortunately, with the current legislative climate, that comparison will remain impossible for the foreseeable future.

Also, it's worth remembering that Microsoft had something which served the mass marketplace for the "desktop" clear back in 1995, whereas Open Source (Linux) is just beginning to arrive at something in that area which may actually be suitable for the masses. An 8 year absence of a presentable entry in that marketplace is a pretty severe failure, and shouldn't be ignored in reports of this kind. If one considers the economic loss of that shortcoming without the proprietary alternative, they are rather staggering.

All of that having been said, I'm really pleased to see the Open Source movement move forward as it has been. In some other IP law context, open source may not have been such a necessity, but in today's IP law context, it is clearly a lifesaver.

Wally Bass

[ Reply to This | # ]

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