Friday, May 29, 2009

campaigning to innovate, redux


How I Learned To Stop Worrying and Love the Open Source Zealots

Actually, I didn't learn that at all. I spent the better part of the week worrying about them, so suave and debonair, with their convincing tales of heightened productivity using and Ubuntu, and their laser cannons, that's right, they're armed, and they're also aliens from the planet Firefox. Fear them!

This is what passes for humour chez Jeff after a long week of trying to brainstorm, encourage, document, and comment. OK, they're not laser-toting aliens, but as a developer and an end user in a predominantly Microsoft environment for a pretty long time, I often felt painted as the one to be feared.

You know what?

Microsoft makes some damn good products that are reasonably priced for the business value they deliver.

That felt better than I thought it would.

I'm way out of my comfort zone playing the evangelist, but some of the comments that I've read on the GC IT Innovation Campaign site this week have gotten my back up. I'm not normally an MS zealot, but I could play one on TV for a few minutes, right?

You want open standards? Try ECMA-376 and ISO/IEC 29500:2008 on for size.

You want the source code? Why on earth? You're a government programmer, for crying out loud. If you have the time to patch security holes yourself, you clearly have too much time on your hands and you're not spending enough of it delivering value to the public you're supposed to serve.

Calc is just as good as Excel? You're talking about the #1 business intelligence tool in the world here. Can you handle a pivot table drilling into an OLAP cube? Maybe. How about building a library of pivot tables, charts, and key performance indicators that a user can drag-and-drop on a web page to build their own custom dashboard? Man, I love Excel Services!

Not to mention that with the guidance of our dev shop, smart people with no traditional systems development experience are building apps with Office and SharePoint, so we can say "yes" to our business owners more than we ever used to doing completely custom development. Now let's talk about productivity!

OK, that was a little exhausting. But kinda fun. That is so not my way, but when faced with the outright negativity of so many people, in what was supposed to be (and was, for the most part) a constructive effort to do a better job as IM and IT practitioners in the public service, I think it was an understandable reaction.

But we pay so much for Microsoft licenses! And Ubuntu is free!

Don't give me that. Talk to me about the total cost of ownership. Talk to me about training. Talk to me about support contracts. Talk to me about manageability. Talk to me about user productivity, translated from hours into dollars. (Time is money, I hear.)

Look, I love that there are free, open source options out there. I've used a lot of them myself, going back to installing Debian on my 386 in 1997, from like a dozen 1.44 MB floppies, to run gcc for school. But they're not for every problem, or for every user. Let "I Am Not My User" be your mantra.

You want free? So do I. I want the freedom to decide for myself, because I know my business better than you do. That freedom hasn't always been extended to people who have wanted to leverage open source offerings in their work, and that's unfortunate, but the other extreme is just as bad.

I know that this issue is more complex and nuanced than this, but complexity and nuance were in short supply in way too many comments on the campaign site. It's been a long week, I'm tired, and I've got to work overtime this weekend. Call this my emotional knee-jerk reaction. But my mind is open to a reasonable debate. I love that I got a thoughtful comment out of nowhere on my first post on the issue.

That is all. *yawn* Good night.


Jeff said...

Post script.

I almost forgot. As my boss was leaving the office this evening, he left me with this morsel of wisdom: "The fact that you're this riled up means that you're still passionate about your work." Man, I hate it when he's right.

Johnny said...

Some thoughts:

1. It's dumb to get into a "my TCO is less than your TCO" pissing contest. You both probably deliver excellent TCO. Microsoft makes wonderful products, no question, but they do not magically lower your TCO.

2. As you allude to, open standards are what really matter. Let the MS shops and the Java shops and the Cobol shops do whatever they want behind the scenes, just ensure your document standards are interoperable and not tied to a specific product.

3. Notwithstanding the wonderful products Microsoft makes, they've earned the mistrust and enmity of open source shops. I like Microsoft products and I'm going to work in a Microsoft shop this fall, but I don't excuse Microsoft's business behaviour.

Jeff said...

Re: your first point, it's impractical or impossible to do an unbiased apples-to-apples comparison. I do believe that open source tools can deliver business value. My problem was with people pretending (or worse, believing) that the TCO of open source on the corporate desktop is zero or near-zero.

I don't have time right now to do number 3 justice; I'll try to respond again soon.

Jeff said...

I've realized that I'm wrong in that last comment. In the context of the Public Service acting on behalf of the Canadian people and the values and ethics inherent in that responsibility, pretending is much worse than believing.

I'm still pondering point 3. You have me at a disadvantage because I'm really not a Microsoft apologist and you actually took an ethics course in your undergrad if I'm not mistaken. I think my response will involve fair trade coffee and risk management, how's that for a teaser? :)

Johnny said...

Perhaps I should apologize for the flame baiting comment in the first place. I could write an entire blog post about this, but here are some Google searchs you can check out. You're probably familiar with most of this criticism.

What it comes down to is that Microsoft has spread a lot of FUD about Linux and open source software. They've at times dismissed, demonized, and threatened free software (free as in freedom, not free as in beer, as the saying goes).

So it's not surprising that open source proponents are wary of any Microsoft lead solution. This is beyond opinions of how good Microsoft software is, beyond TCO, and beyond the fact open source software is free (as in beer).

Microsoft would do well to promote themselves on their technical and TCO merits, and stop with all the garbage nonsense about open source software.

Steve Davis said...

IMHO, Microsoft's limited embrace of open standards only really came about as a result of large organizations moving to include open standards as requirements in RFPs. In my organization we're faced with serious decisions about committing to the MS stack or looking at more open solutions. MS will argue that their integrated products deliver greater value and more streamlined support ("one throat to choke" as opposed to a mix of vendors/FLOSS) -- hard to argue with that. On the other hand we're supposed to encourage a competive procurement environment -- pretty tough to do when all your desktop or middle-tier or db solutions are inextricably linked to other products from the same vendor.

On another note, it was interesting to see the enthusiasm for open source products. I assume that this is coming mostly from younger public servants. It'll be interesting to see if their views carry forward as they move into more senior positions.