CLONMEL -- An awareness of how to cultivate technology appears absent from the political platforms of candidates for European Parliament as well as from the dossiers of some Irish ministers. This troubling problem threatens the integrity of Information Society initiatives.
That’s certainly not the case for Richard Stallman, the outspoken Free Software advocate who has visited Dublin at regular intervals.
Stallman’s talk about “The Dangers of Software Patents” will cap the end of the 2004 programme for the Trinity Netsoc. To long-time observers, Stallman delivers a consistent message that consistently rings true. He has to evangelise the values of Free Software because major industry players successfully rally public opinion against using either Free Software or Open Source Software (OSS).
The advocacy group Open Ireland draws attention to this fact, pointing out to Minister for State Mary Hanafin that her cautionary comments regarding OSS “were out of place and not consistent with government policy in most EU countries and the European Commission.”
Anyone working with OSS can point to good value for money. During the past two months, several groups of Irish software developers and IT managers have met to identify ways to leverage this proven value by incorporating OSS into their business practises. Along the way, they encounter resistance from established resellers and solution providers who feel threatened by OSS.
Pat Cox, President of the European Parliament, believes “Open Source Software can undoubtedly be seen as a significant savings opportunity for public administrations in Europe—a way to avoid costly annual payments for software licenses.”
For every friendly political sound bite advocating OSS, there are proprietary software advances elsewhere.
Less than one month after Pat Cox explained the importance of using OSS in public administration, the Irish government’s largest Information Society project of the year rowed into view with a Microsoft back end for the Mobhaile project.
Product demonstrators at the ICT Expo described Mobhaile as “a comprehensive information facility for citizens and communities throughout Ireland using technology.” The project uses Microsoft Sharepoint, which is as far removed from OSS as Gerry Adams is from Ian Paisley.
Casual observers might miss this point because some of the promotional literature uses the term “Open Standards” to describe how data trickles around Sharepoint. Open Standards software is software that expresses part of either its functionality or requirements in a well-defined, commonly accepted way. So both Microsoft Word and Star Office can read a Word document because Microsoft has published the standards. But, try to open a Word 1.0 document in anything other than Microsoft Word and you will see the limitation of Open Standards. Seen another way, when you cannot work with a file outside of its authoring environment, you are mired in proprietary software. The proprietor might have published the standards, then changed them, then republished them. Unless you have the proprietor’s tools, you’re stuck.
Paul O’Malley from the Irish Linux Users Group says, “Some of the standards currently in use are anything but open. In fact, they serve as de-facto standards locking users to a particular platform and application suite. Open Standards can only truly be open if they are published and available to all. This would mean that in 20 years, applications could be written so that they would be able to make use of documents written and stored today.”
Now consider Mobhaile. If thousands of parishes, clubs, community groups and civil servants use Mobhaile infrastructure as the primary storage of information, they are voting for the Sharepoint system with every key stroke. Documents must be loaded through a licensed Sharepoint node, using a Sharepoint template, Microsoft database library objects.
A gigantic chasm exists between the mySQL database implementations of many Irish Weblogs and the proprietary database inside MS-Sharepoint. Irish blogger James Corbett “attended the Mobhaile stand at last month’s ICT Expo and saw very little that I imagined could not be easily replicated with the standards tools and services of the blogosphere.”
Perhaps it’s time to ensure the test phase of Mobhaile evaluates an OSS community Weblog option. That’s the recommendation of a rising chorus of Irish developers who have used community blogging tools to great effect for several years running.
Blogging communities have proliferated across the world, enabled by dynamic databases, based on technologies like C, Perl and mySQL programming. Exploiting this established code base, leveraging it to enhance people’s lives, is what the Information Society is all about.
Justin Mason -- "Compare and contrast"
James Corbett -- "Mobhaile misgivings"
Dave Winer -- "As good a time as any"
COSPA -- Official Opening