Myths of Technical Neutrality

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“Technical neutrality” is a term used these days, usually by government agencies though also in private enterprise, to indicate the commandment “Thou shalt state no preference between open source and proprietary software.” When used in the most well-meaning sense, the usual intent is that ideology, politics, economic and market theories, marketshare, and de facto product standardization should not influence your choice of the best software for the intended use, now and in the future.

It is not separate from conditions that might state that the software should fully support open standards, because factors like real, broad interoperability (vs. interoperability with a particular vendor’s software) are absolutely part of the criteria in determining what “best software for the intended use” means.

There are some variations to the statement as I’ve given it that I would like to point out in case you hear them. These are a little over the top to make my point, but I think you will recognize many of the arguments. In any case, I want to make clear that these are all my personal opinions based on my own experiences with customers around the world.

“Thou shalt state no preference between open source and proprietary software”
Variation #1: “Thou shalt state no preference for open source over proprietary software”

This is usually used by critics of open source software, who usually coincide with the group of strict proponents of proprietary software. While seemingly neutral, it nevertheless leaves you with the impression that protection is needed against the open source upstarts. This is remarkable, because in most product categories, proprietary software vendors usually have greatly larger revenue today.

Variation #2: “Thou shalt state no preference for proprietary over open source software”

This one is by the proponents of open source software and attempts to make sure that the new open source model gets a fair consideration vs. the established and installed proprietary software business models. Most people who adopt such statements are explicitly declaring that they are open source advocates and are willing to settle in for a fight.

Variation #3: “Thou shalt state no advantages of open source over proprietary software”

This is the most insidious of all the variations and is a nastier form of #1. Not only should you not prefer open source, you shouldn’t even talk about the potential advantages. The reason why this is so troublesome is that it protects the status quo: if the known and incumbent software is proprietary and you are not allowed to do a full comparison with open source, the incumbent will usually win, except in the situation where it must be tossed because it is a complete failure. This amounts to an incumbent controlling the media to not allow a challenger to compete on an informed, level playing field.

Variation #4: “Thou shalt state no advantages of proprietary over open source software”

This is here for completeness, though I have never seen it used in practice. Clearly it is an attempt to booster open source software, but because of the installed base of proprietary software, I doubt it would be effective in practice today. If the roles were reversed, if more open source software was used than proprietary, it would be just as nasty as #3.

To be clear, if you do favor open source or proprietary software, using one of these variations might appeal to you. My point in this entry is to examine what you should look out for if your intent is to be evenhanded with both of them.

Rather than “technical neutrality,” I agree with my IBM colleague Ros Docktor that what we need is the idea of “technical inclusiveness.” This means that rather than trying to play word games to improve the consideration of either open source or proprietary software, consider the full and explicit technical and economic advantages of each based on what you are trying to accomplish. For example, in the Massachusetts case, the focus is on getting the best products that implement the OASIS OpenDocument format. Because it is an open standard, neither open source nor proprietary software has an advantage, especially since we are still in the early days of implementation of the latest standard. Here the issue is to choose the best piece of software that implements the standard, open source or propietary, and let the best contender win. In fact, support of the standard will allow multiple implementations to co-exist, and this can be a good thing if different groups nned to use different software.

Examine all the features of all the software you have considered, just like you used to do when comparing several proprietary products. Pay particular attention to interoperability features: these will only grow in importance from now on. If a software provider (open source or proprietary) tries to lock you into their offerings via non-standard data formats when standard ones exist, find out when the standard will be implemented and get a commitment. In the case of open source software, perhaps even assist with the implementation of the standard.

My first statement “Thou shalt state no preference between open source and proprietary software” shows far more symmetry than any of the other variations. In the same way, you should understand that many of the considerations when acquiring software are independent of whether the software comes from a proprietary or open source provider.

Finally, the world is becoming more of a hybrid mix between proprietary and open source software every day. You typically don’t need to make choices between using all of one or the other. Even products like IBM’s WebSphere Application Server contain a mix of proprietary and open source components, though you should not be surprised that much of the latter is there to support the implementation of standards.

Keep an open mind; watch out for nuanced, asymmetrical statements from anyone; and be more than neutral, be inclusive.

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