Public Software

Instead of talking about Open Source Software, should we be talking about Public Software?

Hypothesis: The most successful open source software projects are marketed to software developers and system administrators because those are the only people who understand and really value the open source nature of a piece of code. Open source is not a very valuable selling point outside of this community.

Anecdotal experience: I have been getting some serious glazed looks when trying to talk to non-software experts about open source, why it’s great, why we do it, and why they should want it, even when the value proposition is clear to me and I think should be clear to them, e.g. governments can share the code, the upgrades, the support costs and avoid vendor lock in etc.

Since most of our customers are government entities, the real value of sharing our software is in sharing it among these public entities. Hence my interest in the term Public Software.

This could be more than just semantics and marketing. A city IT staffer at City Camp, when asked about releasing her city’s code under an OSS license instead suggested, based in part of push-back she had received from her city’s attorneys, that a new open source license be created that would allow any government (or perhaps non-profit) entity to use the code, but would not making available to commercial entities. This may sound like yet another license that wouldn’t really be very different, and in many ways that’s true, however, for government entities there is a perverse sort of difference: They are afraid of spending the public’s money on projects that will benefit specific private interests. Making OSS that is then used by a commercial entity to make a profit could be construed, perhaps by a litigious proprietary software vendor who didn’t get to do the project, as just this sort of misuse of public dollars. Similarly, they are afraid of giving away things that the public has paid for. However, there seems to be some openness to giving it away, as long as it is only being given to other public entities.

Of course this goes a long way to limiting the value of OSS, as the commercial software world has been a huge supporter and enhancer of OSS projects to date. It also goes against OSS morals because if it is not open to commercial users, it is not totally open. That said, I think we should discuss this, as I think it would help us coalesce a movement of government entities around shared software development and support by making the value more clear to them. Open is, in some sense, too open a concept.

I did not coin this term. Here are some of the Google results of a search for Public Software. They closely mirror the OSS world, showing that this isn’t much of a departure in spirit, but may be in practice: The GNU General Public License, The Public Software Foundation, Software in the Public Interest, The Free Software Foundation, The Public Software Group, Public Software: a model for Latin America, etc.