Navigating the Open-Source Debate

Events in Peru are spurring a movement that could force Microsoft to change dramatically

A quiet revolution that began in Peru is sweeping the PC industry worldwide. In March 2002, Bill 1609 began making its way through the Peruvian Congress. If passed, this bill would require all government institutions to use open-source rather than proprietary software when a choice exists. Microsoft Peru saw a storm brewing and sent the Peruvian government an angry letter arguing that the bill would prevent competition for government software contracts. Peruvian Congressman Dr. Edgar David Villanueva Nuñez responded with an eloquent point-by-point rebuttal (available at and gave impetus to a global software-reform movement.

A Revolution Begins
Villanueva told Microsoft that Bill 1609's central tenet is that because public data must remain permanent and freely accessible to citizens, data encoding shouldn't be tied to one provider. "The use of standard and open formats gives a guarantee of this free access, if necessary through the creation of compatible free software," he wrote. He added that because the usability and maintenance of proprietary software relies on the goodwill of the software maker, only open-source software can guarantee source-code availability. According to Villanueva, Bill 1609

  • doesn't forbid the production or sale of proprietary software
  • doesn't specify which software the government must use
  • doesn't dictate the software supplier
  • doesn't limit software-licensing terms

What the bill does guarantee is that the integrity, confidentiality, and accessibility of public governmental data will be maintained through the use of software whose source code is freely available and modifiable. When software is open, a vendor can't render it unusable (e.g., by requiring an upgrade).

The Revolution Spreads
The bill has caused other governments, such as those of Mexico, Venezuela, and Argentina, to consider similar measures. In the United States, a group of open-source advocates, led by representatives from Linux maker Red Hat Software, is petitioning the state of California to adopt a similar open-source policy. Meanwhile, the Cyberspace Policy Institute, a technology think tank, is offering to certify Linux under the Common Criteria, a set of criteria for evaluating software security that products must meet before they can be used in sensitive government applications in the United States and elsewhere.

For its part, Microsoft has joined the Initiative for Software Choice, a lobbying group that hopes to dissuade governments from requiring open-source solutions. The group argues that governments, like businesses, should adopt the solutions that make the most sense for their situation, regardless of how those solutions are created. But, behind the scenes, Microsoft is increasingly reaching out to the open-source community with wider releases of Windows OS source code to educational institutions, researchers, and large customers. The company is opening some products (e.g., Windows CE .NET—formerly code-named Talisker) to source-code inspection and adopting open data formats based on industry standards such as XML for other products, such as the next version of Microsoft Office (code-named Office 11).

What It All Means
The open-source movement in general and the Peruvian bill in particular have affected Microsoft's approach to software development and distribution, as evidenced by the company's increasing willingness to implement open standards and, in some cases, even make source code available to customers. However, I think corporate data is beholden to a different set of rules from government data. In contrast to the assertion that government data must remain publicly accessible, corporate data typically is proprietary.

Nevertheless, the events in Peru could be the beginning of a serious anti-proprietary-software movement that will either doom Microsoft or force the company to change more dramatically than it has ever done. But Microsoft has repeatedly shown that it can adapt to changing market conditions. And I think that it will weather this storm, too, by making its solutions meet customers' demands, although adoption of open-source measures in the United States could prod it to move more quickly than it otherwise would.

Hide comments


  • Allowed HTML tags: <em> <strong> <blockquote> <br> <p>

Plain text

  • No HTML tags allowed.
  • Web page addresses and e-mail addresses turn into links automatically.
  • Lines and paragraphs break automatically.