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California considers open-source shift

Proposed changes in state procurement policies would favor Linux and its offshoots.

SAN JOSE, Calif.--California lawmakers and administrators got an earful on open-source software Friday: A state government panel considered proposals that would boost government use of Linux and other technologies.

The proposals appear in a lengthy report from the California Performance Review Commission, charged by Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger with figuring out how to make state government work better and cheaper.

Among the ideas in the panel's $32 billion cost-cutting recommendations: favoring open-source software over proprietary alternatives for new IT purchases. The report doesn't project cost-savings for such a move but describes open-source products as more flexible and secure than the proprietary code that dominates government systems today. State agencies "should take an inventory of software purchases and software renewals...and implement open-source alternatives where feasible," according to the report.

California joins numerous government bodies that have adopted or considered procurement policies that favor open-source software as more cost-effective and secure. The Commonwealth of Massachusetts cast its lot with open-source last year, as have government agencies in Britain, Korea and elsewhere.

The California proposal drew cheers from some techies and rebukes from industry trade groups. Carol Henton, regional vice president of the Information Technology Association of America, said purchasing decisions should be based on objective appraisals of cost vs. benefits. "While open-source software is a legitimate and potentially effective approach to software development, this approach is not inherently better, nor more deserving of consideration, than proprietary approaches," Henton told the commission.

Roxanne Gould, senior vice president of trade group the American Electronics Association, said the report assumes as-yet unproven benefits from using open-source products. "It's not unusual for open-source software to end up being more expensive than other products," she said, urging commissioners to focus on the more established benefits of technology based on open standards.

Open-source defenders included Gerald Goldberg, executive officer of the California Franchise Tax Board, who said the agency has already had success using open-source products. "Open-source can be a major cost savings for the state, and we can't simply ignore it," he said.

While organizations connected with the software industry were most alarmed at the report's proposals, the online content side of Silicon Valley may have problems with a recommendation that the state sell advertising space on government Web sites. The report said such a move could create a valuable source of revenue. It could also compete with companies, such as Google and Yahoo, that sell advertising space.

"It may create the image of the state being for sale to the highest bidder," warned Carl Guardino, CEO of the Silicon Valley Manufacturing Group.