Many governments, particularly those in developing nations, are increasingly legislating preferences for open-source software. A much smarter approach may be that recently adopted by Hungary, however, which has mandated the use of open standards.
Smarter, because for all the noise about open-source mandates in places like Latin America, I've been hearing from contacts in these markets that government IT workers have continued to use the software they prefer, not the software mandated by legislation.
And smarter, because it focuses on creating real competition in government IT, which arguably is a much better way to keep vendors honest and citizens empowered than an open-source license. If you can have both, even better, but the right place to start government policy is in the realm of standards.
The Open Standards Alliance proposed and lobbied for the change to Act LX of 2009 on electronic public services within Hungarian law. The goal? To "promote the spread of monopoly-free markets that foster the development of interchangeable and interoperable products," thereby opening up the market to "broad competition."
It's a laudable goal, and arguably much better than those efforts to mandate a particular licensing approach to software, which could result in adoption of software that doesn't work as well as its proprietary peers.
I like the way the Open Standards Alliance describes it:
Any device using a standard plug can be connected to the electric power supply by means of a wall socket. Connecting a television set or a refrigerator to the mains does not require the expertise of an electrician. And if the refrigerator is unplugged and a television plugged in instead, the television will work, too.
Similarly, the two types of portal set out by Hungarian legislation (the administrative portal and the client portal serving individual users) will function as statutory standard 'sockets' in intercommunication between computers.
In other words, the law isn't picking winners. It's not deciding between open-source and proprietary software. It's actively fostering competition between open and closed systems.
The devil is in the details, of course, but the approach is promising. There are still questions to be answered, e.g., will Microsoft file formats like .docx be considered open standards? Some suggest the answer is yes.
Does this degrade the value of the legislation?
On a related note, it's also very possible that "open standard" may be redefined, as Glyn Moody points out may be happening with the European Interoperability Framework, to include not-so-open standards.
Even so, it's good to see a government focused on the interconnections between software, rather than the licenses thereof. As we increasingly see with open source in cloud computing, licenses matter little for ensuring openness. Standards, however, continue to have a big role to play.