What Happened to the Obama Open Source Initiative?

At least initially, President Obama was keenly interested in exploring how the United States government could use open source software rather than rely on proprietary software. President Obama was so interested in pursuing open source software solutions that on his second day in Office he asked Scott McNealy, a co-founder of Sun Microsystems, to lead his open source charge.  In fact, President Obama reportedly asked McNealy to prepare a report on how the federal government could employ open source software, but as yet, some 26 months later there has been no mention of the report or across the board government adoption of open source software.

Open source advocates praised the fact that President Obama wanted to transition the U.S. government away from proprietary solutions and into open source, but now that the report has seemingly stalled and the White House has done little more than release open source Drupal code, what does the open source community have to show?

In fact, at the time President Obama picked McNealy to lead efforts to report on the feasibility of switching the government over to open source platforms as a way of saving money and not being beholden to proprietary solutions, many open source supporters were irritated by the Silicon Valley insider being chosen to spearhead government efforts.  Of course, many in the tech community to embraced any movement toward open source, but here is what Ars Technica had to say, in part, about Obama’s decision to turn to McNealy:

Although Obama’s interest in open source looks like a promising sign that the incoming government is serious about reforming federal IT procurement policies, the decision to call on Sun’s eccentric co-founder is an incomprehensible twist. McNealy’s long history of bizarre and contradictory positions on open source software make him a less than ideal candidate for helping to shape national policy on the subject. Asking Scott McNealy to write a paper about open source software is a bit like asking Dick Cheney to write a paper about government transparency.

And here is what CNET had to say, in part:

While I agree with those benefits [of open source], I’m not a supporter of mandates. I wouldn’t want the government mandating Microsoft software–why would I therefore seek an open-source mandate? Open source has done remarkably well in the U.S. federal government without mandates, and will continue to do so because of the benefits identified by McNealy.

Perhaps the trouble associated with coming out with a report or even a government wide coherent approach is that open source software is not really free really.  Yes, some of the software that qualifies as open source can be used freely, and is used freely, and whenever I criticize the open source business model people point out that IPWatchdog.com runs using WordPress, which is free (i.e., no cost).  For reasons that I have never understood and which have never been explained in any rational manner, there are many who find it disingenuous of me to point out that open source is a flawed business model at the same time I use open source software.  There is, of course, nothing inconsistent or intellectually dishonest about noticing that the open source business model is one that is doomed to fail while at the same time using open source software.

The fact that at least some open source software is given away to be used freely demonstrates the problem with finding a sustainable business model and may explain why the Obama Administration hasn’t yet presented the report on how the government can use open source software to decrease costs.  You really have a hard time staying in business and focusing on the research, development and product advancements when the product you offer is given away to be used free, or the underlying code that makes it work can be copied and used by competitors without consequences.  So the fact that I use WordPress does nothing other than demonstrate my point about the lack of a sustainable business model for open source software.  I use WordPress because it is sufficient for my purposes and it is free, which illustrates the primary fatal flaw in pursuing an open source strategy.  You cannot make money on free.

In fact, back in 2008 Business Week wrote that open source business models that rely on service revenue streams fail to meet the expectations of investors.  In November of 2009 the New York Times reported that the business model for open source has been elusive, that there is doubt whether the business model can stand the test of time and that really only one company – Red Hat – is successfully making money.  In June 2010, ComputerWorldUK wrote about that traumatic realization (at least for some in the open source community) that “for an open source company to become commercially successful, it needs to have an unfair advantage against its competition – something that they cannot copy, use, modify or provide to their customers.”  Also in June 2010, InfoWorld quipped that the way to make a small fortune with open source software is to start with a large fortune, and then went on to point out that, “The open source revolution began at least two decades ago, but businesses and programmers are still struggling to understand the best way to share wonderful code and pay the mortgage.”

Of course, not all open source software is free, and that is something that the open source community is having a difficult time accepting.  More and more are coming out and saying the obvious, which is what ComputerWorldUK wrote, that there needs to be some kind of “unfair advantage” to prevent the competition from simply taking what you have come up with, repackage it and then use your work in the marketplace against you.  That “unfair advantage” isn’t really an unfair advantage at all though.  When the law offers a mechanism to create an advantage it is hardly unfair to exploit it.  What am I talking about?  Patents.  If you have a software innovation you can obtain a patent on it and pursue a proprietary model.

To a large extent open source and patents are logically inconsistent, but if there is going to be a long term open source market those who are searching for a business model that does more than provide service revenue, which always dwindles as new businesses enter and push prices down, there has to be some propriety solutions working in tandem with open source ideals.

It is certainly laudable to want to create and give the fruits of your labors away, but the open source movement would do more for the community and more for innovation if they were able to stay in business and continue to engage in ongoing research and development.  For that reason open source should focus on collaborative innovation rather than a militant idea that if you take open source software for your project you have done a deal with the devil and your derivative work is free to be used, copied and owned by anyone and everyone else.

In the early stages of a business life cycle it makes all the sense in the world to copy and take from others.  Open source must seem to business newbies akin to being a kid in a candy shop.  But then after you create yourself it doesn’t seem quite so wonderful.  Depending upon the open source regime you have copied from you may have no ability to prevent others from taking what you contribute that is new, which doesn’t sound so great after you have spent time and money creating that which is new.  How will you recoup your investments?  Exactly.  You won’t, but you will be able to sell your time as a service.

Who knows why the Obama Administration hasn’t been faster out of the gate with the open source report and recommendations for the federal government.  Perhaps it is forthcoming.  But when you set out an initiative on the second day in office and you still don’t have anything to show for it exactly 26 months later I think it is legitimate to ask why.  So why hasn’t there been more progress?  Perhaps it isn’t as easy as it would seem to adopt something that the government thought would largely be free.


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Join the Discussion

21 comments so far.

  • [Avatar for JohnMoD]
    April 12, 2011 02:37 pm

    Name one pure play US corporation founded in the last 10 years that has over 1 billion in sales? You can’t because the software industry is becoming commoditized. No longer can a company come up with a great idea and own the market, tech is moving way to fast for that. OSS won

  • [Avatar for New Here]
    New Here
    March 28, 2011 09:57 pm


    I understand, and I drop the question.
    BD I think you have read too much into my simple comment, just my opinion, but the logic approach is an overkill here. If this means something to you, that is, the difference is that someone is willing / able to grasp or otherwise home-in on what you’ve been saying, thought given, they may not be in total agreement with it — word for word.

    In the case of my comment, I made no judgements nor tempted any arguments over content. I didn’t express what extent of understanding, nor what the understanding subject was, with respect to my own views understanding or opinion. Your logic is, it seems, based upon having taken too much from all comments in question and built upon that, that the logic is based, with all respect, has nothing to do with what my meaning is.


  • [Avatar for Bobby]
    March 28, 2011 09:36 pm

    You seem to spend more time badmouthing me than addressing actual points these days.

    Also, I feel it’s worth mentioning that my points were not really strongly dependent upon technological aptitude beyond being able to name a few projects that use FOSS, but rather an understanding of ways businesses can make money and the effects of more permissive licensing on end users. You’ve also accused me of poorly understanding of business repeatedly, but most of that seems to stem from you reading my posts for what you wish to read instead of the meaning I intend to convey. You doing that makes conversations tend to be a waste of time for all parties involved.

  • [Avatar for Blind Dogma]
    Blind Dogma
    March 28, 2011 08:57 pm

    New Here – you are missing the point. I am not talking about any specific technical aspects myself – I am merely commenting on your perception that understanding makes a difference.

    Bobby consistently tries to muddle in areas where he does not have an understanding – the legal world – and thinks that his Dogma is “good enough.” The corollary to your point of understanding makes a difference is that misunderstanding (whether by error or on purpose) also makes a difference – just not a positive one.

  • [Avatar for New Here]
    New Here
    March 28, 2011 07:43 pm


    I don’t speak for Bobby. Now please, I do want to know about these technical aspects you’ve mentioned.


  • [Avatar for Blind Dogma]
    Blind Dogma
    March 28, 2011 04:32 pm

    Well said, you have an understanding, and that makes a difference.

    Yes it does. As I have been preaching for quite awhile. Now then, how upset doyou think Bobby would be if I were to start spouting gibberish on the technical aspects and demanding that my gibberish be taken seriously because my philosophy is oh so important?

    I can rightly imagine that Bobby would be a bit perturbed.

  • [Avatar for New Here]
    New Here
    March 28, 2011 11:36 am


    Well said, you have an understanding, and that makes a difference.

  • [Avatar for Bobby]
    March 28, 2011 10:55 am

    I think where the confusion for you lies is that it’s hard to build a mega-corporation solely off of a FOSS model, and because of that, it appears that the model is fundamentally broken. There will probably never be a software company as big as Microsoft whose primary business is selling software, or even selling support. The sustainable levels those models have probably peak somewhere around the relative size of what Red Hat is now, which is still not that shabby. I don’t see this as inherently a bad thing, especially since the spread of broadband internet has greatly reduced the infrastructure costs needed to distribute software, meaning there is far less need for behemoths in the field of software. As you’ve said before (or at least something like it), the bulk of innovation doesn’t come from the large, established interests, but the small, new and nimble.

    It’s also worth noting that not all businesses need to make their profits directly off of the software itself. A rather large amount of hardware companies have made embedded devices that run on the Linux kernel, making up a large share of the handy and innovative gadgets that have come out in recent years. The Kindle, Tivo, the TomTom, Android devices, some HDTVs, particularly ones with enhanced web-based features, and most of the competitors to these products have used the Linux kernel and often some other FOSS tools to get products out faster and cheaper than they would have been able to if they started from scratch. If there is something that needs to be adapted for these uses, the companies in question may end up directly funding the development of that adaptation to scratch that particular itch, which is the incentive for IBM to fund FOSS development.

    You also have to consider that the more important success is what works for businesses and individuals, so long as the model in question can be sustained enough to continue development. For businesses that need to use technology, which is practically all modern businesses, having tools available that are easy to get, have low costs, and can fit your needs is very important. I presume that this site leads you to at least intellectual profit if not financial, and the gratis element of WordPress along with it’s quality likely makes it easier economically to run this site. The small businesses that benefit from FOSS can use the lowered barrier to entry to innovate, create new jobs, and so forth. The libre nature of FOSS can also be useful to certain platforms that need to adapt existing software to their own needs for internal use.

  • [Avatar for New Here]
    New Here
    March 27, 2011 10:43 am

    Adding to post #12:

    Those shocked are simply not aware of how it works, and I can’t say I disagree with them, because I would feel the same way if I were looking at it their way.

    You mention success it seems in a context Gene, I would have to ask what definition does success refer so we could have a single understood term for it. Success isn’t a single set of ideas that serve as the ruler. One point you’ve, it seems, not mention is, how many successful businesses today are in fact using some form of open source software. As the example of Apple Corp I gave earlier. Let me revisit the example, and add this, that Jobs of Apple and his people must have thought I will guess, that the FreeBSD kernel was a “success” at the stage when Apple obtained a copy of it to use in their work of Darwin. The Darwin kernel also forms the OS found in Apple’s iPhones (IOS). As well a number of other Apple product-devices.

    Now a good point here to make is that all those folks continue working on FreeBSD in view of Apple’s success using their work. Has it done them harm, no, these same people have the success of Apple to some extent to their credit. This is no different then if a patented work makes its way into a successful business, that the patent owner doesn’t deserve some credit – if such an patent is a building block. Fair enough.

    Another point here, is that the jurassic ideas of control as one well know vendor of OSes, that over past years served as a threat to business, threat because they had no control over their business destiny. Given what they were to make do with, having no knowledge of how things worked to change or otherwise make real time business choices. As of Linux’s “success”, seeing the huge uptake of it and the works around it, business has a choice of what they will use, and control over it when they do. This change that has taken place is easy to understand using the fact that more successful businesses are using open source, to greater or in selected extents, saving money while making money to keep doors open and jobs.

    Open source shares the success of all those that use it of their free will. Making open source a success by independence and levels of control by users. No harm has been done to those that their work is part of so much going on — in successful business and at a personal level for non-business users. Failures happen, in the US startup non-open source business failures are high. Unlike open source project failures where mostly it is just a project’s community stops work on it — or the project is replaced and work again, stops.

    Money isn’t made by selling code in the open source world, it is made by offering something. Google, uses many open source projects including Linux — as well as, Apache web server, PHP, at no cost to them through licensing that licensing otherwise would apply adding cost. Android taking market and seeing growth, Android apps as iPhone apps, many are successful money makers and a booming market for both today. Oh, many app being free-of-charge as well. So, the next time you buy that new big screen tv, think, that just maybe it has open source inside — as embedded Linux and open source projects as, Busybox, that make those products sell at cost that otherwise wouldn’t.

  • [Avatar for New Here]
    New Here
    March 26, 2011 08:05 pm


    I agree with you on your point regarding competitors, no one should using open source or not, allow their work to be distributed in any way shape or form — in that business model. However in the open source world, competitors are as real there as in the proprietary world, with the largest difference being that they compete for community support. Open source projects are created with the idea at the start, that a community will form around it, making contributions of many kind. Such community contributors around a project already with the full understanding of open source, and in agreement with it. Makers of proprietary products should learn the legal end of wanting to use the code of anyone, open source should not be overlooked and taken without knowing that such an act, could and often has a legal impact on their products as well business model.

    If open source code doesn’t make a match for *your* product, the open source code should be avoided. And open source not be given a dirty rep over wanting to protect the open source model — as those that wish to protect their business models / products in the proprietary world. All those active in the overall open source community, from global Corps down, that have active work (projects or contributions) are full aware of what the law is and are active with the knowledge of what will happen and does with their work.

    Business models – One example:
    Gene, look into IBM, and the change that has happen over the past 10+ years. IBM’s computer “Watson” is a small sample of the work done on Linux, an open source OS that IBM doesn’t own — making such and all contributions available in full legal agreement with the GPLv2 that Linux is licensed. Respect while building business and products — with profits that pay well.

    Yet, IBM continues to move Linux on more of it’s hardware today, selling to Governments, Fed State and worldwide, while making profits doing so. Not that you said so, but, IBM didn’t spend it’s money to throw it at the wind, because they just like Linux.

    Once again, it is about choice, all within or outside the open source community will do so, only by choice. Making money with products isn’t limited to a few business models, as I believe you can research and find this to be ture, as well.

    Thank you Gene, for your reply #11, it gets me thinking.

  • [Avatar for Gene Quinn]
    Gene Quinn
    March 26, 2011 04:18 pm

    New Here-

    I think that the biggest “hidden trap cost,” as you call it, is with those who are using open source code to create a product that they will sell, or a product that they will give away and then seek to make money on through service. If they use open source code under many regimes they are then allowing anyone else to copy their additions and add on to those without paying any kind of royalty.

    Admittedly I don’t deal with the true believers who find nothing wrong with taking and having others then take their work, but many are shocked that the fruits of their labors can simply be taken by competitors who then compete directly with them. So while using open source code is far less expensive at the beginning it doesn’t allow for much, if any, protection against copy-cat competitors. This was the focus of my article regarding open source being a race to zero. See:


    Each successive iteration of new market entrances copies what others have created before them, adds a little original and then they have to compete on price pushing the price down. I took a lot of heat for that article, which is curious given that it is 100% true and accurate. Some just don’t like the reality that it is extremely difficult, if not impossible, to create a sustainable truly open source business model. We are decades into the open source “movement” and those in the industry still have to ask how to make a successful business model? That in and of itself seems like proof of failure to me.



  • [Avatar for New Here]
    New Here
    March 26, 2011 11:15 am

    “Open source is free like puppies are free in that it comes without cost initially but there is a great deal of cost down the road and you are tied to the animal for better or for worse.”


    with all respect, that is true of all ventures one decides to take. Being so, it is not right or wrong, and any argument will be based upon viewpoint of the individual.

    So, from a viewpoint, business always seeks to cut cost and one way to do that, having the most impact, is at the start of the business. With most all Open source, no upfront cost, true. Most all proprietary software being equal in use and application, has upfront cost, that is added on top of all other normal business operations cost.

    Case in point, Apple some years ago makes the choice to use as the basis of a new kernel, a BSD licensed (Open source), kernel, FreeBSD. The derived kernel (Darwin) because one, the BSD license requires no share of code, two, no licensing cost — at all.
    Apple’s success with this move is well documented, having only the cost of normal operations over these past years. Normal because, Apple is a “developer”, it is what Apple does, and without the added cost of licensing Aplle was able to more — need I say more.

    The few of many, I gave links to are examples of what I find hard to believe. Believe the cost of Open source has somehow over the past 10+ years, turned, having bitten them in the rear with cost. I don’t know about anyone else, but I find it hard to think that so many just ignore or otherwise are blind to the *hidden trap cost* of using Open source.


  • [Avatar for New Here]
    New Here
    March 25, 2011 02:04 pm


    Thanks, I didn’t hear that before and was thinking another meaning.


  • [Avatar for Gene Quinn]
    Gene Quinn
    March 25, 2011 01:37 pm

    New Here-

    Open source is free like puppies are free in that it comes without cost initially but there is a great deal of cost down the road and you are tied to the animal for better or for worse.


  • [Avatar for New Here]
    New Here
    March 25, 2011 11:49 am

    Congressman McNeely ?

    Great point, then I would have to believe then, that someone likes puppies. And the question, how is open source like puppies ?

    Just a few links from dates over the past ten years to date. It is telling that so many don’t see open source the same way, but so many that do. I will guess puppies have something to do with it.

    Please note the date:


    This is the most note worthy of all:

    “Chinese government backs development of Linux operating system”

    My point with this is, that it is a reach to think that so many simply are following along with some idea. An idea that seems they see as no threat, rather they contribute with money, code, work, and a great deal of the time — with respect.


  • [Avatar for Free Puppies]
    Free Puppies
    March 25, 2011 08:30 am

    Need anyone be reminded that McNeely once described open source as “free, like a puppy is free”.

  • [Avatar for New Here]
    New Here
    March 22, 2011 08:27 pm


    Great link, I will enjoy finish reading it tonight
    On quick read over, I must say the crying for all those unpaid is a twist on the facts imho.
    It isn’t labor first thing, not when those using those open source software projects, having the knowledge and skill to contribute — and do. More important is, because they are FREE do so if that is what want to do — and do it free of change if that is the way they want it. It is sad that in America you are somehow doing something wrong to the way of thinking of some, when what you are doing is nothing more then what you wish to — of your free will.

    So, the next time someone offers to do something for *you*, for nothing, be sure to hand them some payment and not allow them to get away with it. [sarcasm].


  • [Avatar for Bob the Builder]
    Bob the Builder
    March 22, 2011 11:00 am

    “Perhaps it isn’t as easy as it would seem . . . .”

    And thus, Gene effectively summarizes all Obama’s campaign promises in 9 words. Still can’t wait for my “gold plated patents” while getting free “Obamacare” while the national debt is simultaneously cut . . . .

  • [Avatar for IP3456]
    March 22, 2011 06:48 am

    With a large part of open source software, a competitor taking the code and using it is not legally possible – at least not if the competitor himself wants to sell the software, and not services in connection with it.

  • [Avatar for another-view]
    March 22, 2011 12:38 am

    Wired Magazine’s March 2011 issue had an unusual take on open source.
    “Why People-Powered Projects Are Ruled by Tyrants”

    An excerpt: “The volunteer model makes them almost feudal in structure: an enormous mass of unpaid serfs, kept in line by a small group of paid manager-nobles, in turn serving at the pleasure of the kingly founder, whose authority is more or less absolute.”

  • [Avatar for New Here]
    New Here
    March 21, 2011 07:53 pm


    you as so many others don’t really understand what “free” means in the OSS context, or why so many open source projects are “free of charge”. The difference between the two is simple, the former “free” means freedom, as we often say the United States is a “free: Country”. Would, does anyone mistake that meaning for someone can live in the U.S. for free — at no cost ? NO, it means we, have freedoms unlike others that do not.

    Many open source projects are “free of charge” true, they aren’t “given away”.
    WordPress is an open source project that hosting companies can, do offer their customers at no extra charge. Because it is free-of-charge to them to use. http://wordpress.org/about/license/

    Much work is done free-of-charge on WordPress, that has made WordPress the great blog software it is today ! A heads up — If anyone wishes to cut a check in an amount that they believe covers such work they feel should be paid for — go for it !

    Sad, the mistakes that have other facts going ignored as those that change happens and means that the freedom in the United States is at work everyday. No one is being forced to do a thing, talk to those using open source and find out from them why they use it. Here is a story, fact, from some years ago why one uses open source software:


    The large corporations and even the NYSE – http://www.computerworld.com/s/article/9053008/NYSE_places_buy_on_Linux_hold_on_Unix

    have not been forced to do a thing, it has been by “free” choice that they do and nothing else.