Open source and Brazil

June 23rd, 2005 Comments Off on Open source and Brazil

All this talk about the use of open source by the Brazilian government seems like a great idiocy to me sometimes. Despite what the open source zealots say, the government understands the open source as well as somebody who has never seen a computer in his life — with or without Gilberto Gil. I’m a big supporter of open source — I have talk about it, written and distributed open source code, fought for its adoption in the places where I worked when it was warranted — but I believe the government’s instance is wrong in many accounts, and if not seriously discussed in some of them, bad for the country in the long term.

There are two basic kinds of open source projects: those that were created because some needed exceeded the inertia required to bootstrap a development community — JBoss and Apache are some examples — and those that were created to scratch an itch. The former tend to succeed and the latter to fail. Of course, there are exceptions — Linux itself is one of them.

Nonetheless, the first kind of open source project tends to be able to keep themselves on their feet, going strong and creating a whole ecosystem around them — complete with parasites and forks, but keeping the project’s original vision within its building parameters. The second kind, on the other ends, tends to start strong, but is soon releasing only small updates that are not worth the download and reconfiguration required by them.

Of course, where the first kind of projects fits the needs of the government, the government would do well by using them. As any business, the government is more interested in stability and maintainability than ideology. The second kind of project, in this sense, can even be hurtful to the government’s technological base, because of its limited lifetime and the possibility of successive reinventions of the wheel — something that happens too much in bureaucracies and needs no help from open source projects to make it even worse.

So, the choice of open source code, where the government is concerned, should not be guided only by ideology. More likely, the current open source revival has more to do with cost than the other benefits open source brings. That kind of thinking will surely become a problem as more open source projects are adopted. The government has many itches to scratch, but itches are not the areas that open source scratches well.

I know one certain example in which the government adopted an inferior open source codebase and tried to coax it into a working applications. They succeed only in creating a huge mess of code that’s hard to maintain and read — and that only after they rewrote half of the initial code.

There is also another fundamental question: the internal market. No company will willing become a philanthropy — which is how government seems to understand open source — deciding to release all of its projects as open source, especially those who require a good degree of customization. There are some systems which do not benefit from a open source approach, including specialize system, of restricted use, so common in the government.

A unilateral decision favoring open source can eventually slow the internal market, raise costs, and reduce quality. Can WordPress function as a CMS system, complete with workflow? Maybe, but only in a limited way. Can it be customized to become a full-blown CMS? Yes, if it’s acceptable to fork it and make is fragile and brittle to chances.

In those instances — and especially those who require integration with legacy system — I believe a strong internal market, not bound to open source, is the best way to go. Open source for open source’s sake, merely because it seems healthier, prettier and less costly, will do the government no good.

Of course, I think there are people in the government thinking about those issues. I doubt people like Sérgio Amadeu would be so careless. But the zealots are everywhere, and I don’t see any harm in bringing the subject again. Open source can only benefit from this kind of discussion.

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