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Sun's McNealy: Some federal officials see open source as 'anti-capitalist'

He tells White House it needs a CIO -- and an open-source policy

February 26, 2009 12:00 PM ET

Computerworld - WASHINGTON -- Sun Microsystems Inc. Chairman Scott McNealy wants President Barack Obama's administration to do what the U.K., Denmark and other countries have done: encourage, as a matter of policy, open-source software adoption.

Although open-source platforms are widely used today in the federal government -- particularly Linux and Sun's own products, Solaris and Java -- McNealy believes many government officials don't understand it, fear it and even oppose it for ideological reasons.

McNealy cited an open-source development project that Sun worked on with the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services, during which a federal official said "that open source was anti-capitalist." That sentiment, McNealy fears, is not unusual or isolated.

"If you think about it, proprietary software is the software equivalent of a planned economy led by a dictators, whereas open source is all about choice, the market economy and multiple competitive players," said McNealy.

That's the message McNealy and Bill Vass, president and chief operating officer of Sun's federal division, are now delivering. They have already met with Obama administration officials to offer a paper on open source that has since grown into a discussion about the merits of having a federal CIO. The new administration has plans to appoint a chief technology officer, but not a CIO.

"There is not a corporation, a Fortune 1,000 company, around that doesn't have a CIO," said McNealy. "Yet, the federal government dwarfs all those organizations, and they don't really have an empowered, cabinet kind of position."

The Obama administration has not yet spelled out its federal technology plan nor has it appointed all the key people it needs to run it. Meanwhile, outside observers are trying to glean broad policy directions from tactical moves, such as the use of the open-source content management system Drupal for the Web site.

The fiscal year 2010 budget released today reaffirms plans to appoint "the nation's first [CTO] to ensure that our Government and all its agencies have the right infrastructure, policies and services for the 21st Century. The CTO will work with each of the federal agencies to ensure that they use best-in-class technologies and share best practices."

That's little different from what the president said during the 2008 campaign, and it doesn't provide specifics about what those best practices may be. But the Obama administration has been soliciting advice -- and McNealy's arguments may be particularly well timed.

The open-source push is growing. Just this week, the U.K.'s Chief Information Officer Council updated its policy on open-source software. That government has long encouraged its use, and noted that during the last five years "many government departments have shown that open source can be the best for the taxpayer." The policy also said government agencies need to speed up open-source adoption and look to re-use software when possible.

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