Computer Crime Research Center

The Great Software Debate: Technology and Ideology

Date: August 02, 2004
Source: Open Society Institute
By: Jonathan Peizer

Open source software has intensified the ideological debate over what technology to deploy in a given circumstance. The public sector, always price sensitive to any technology solution, has embraced the idea of open source as a cheaper alternative to commercial applications. Open Source refers to a program in which the source code is available to the general public for use and/or modification from its original design free of charge. It is typically created as a collaborative effort in which programmers improve upon the code and share the changes within the community. There is also a strong ideological lobby that sees it as the alternative to commercial dominance by any one player in the software industry and as an equalizer with the potential of wresting control away from US software predominance.

I wonder however, if we aren't having the wrong debate about technology and ideology, particularly in these troubling times. Ideology and technology cohabit the same plane of existence, but on three distinct levels:

The juxtaposition of ideology and technology exists on three distinct levels:

Development ideology: How is the technology developed?
Selection ideology: Why is the technology chosen?
Ideology of use: What is the technology ultimately used for?
My experience is that the most important and thorniest ideological consideration is the ideology of use. Unfortunately far too much time is spent obsessing about the ideology of software selection to meet a particular need and far too little time considering the effects of its application. How software is deployed, particularly in a world that is hypersensitive to global security concerns, has much farther reaching implications and consequences than the ideologies used to create and select it.

Development Ideology: How is the Technology Developed?

Ideological considerations occur early in the development process. Is software developed for free, on a commercial basis or as a hybrid of the two? Is an application designed to meet a social mission, a personal interest or a business requirement? On the legal front should applications be fully available to the public for the purposes of modification, or hidden behind proprietary legal constructs? From a standards point of view are considerations purely technical or are the needs of the disabled and disadvantaged taken into account when designing new technology specifications?

Developers ultimately decide why they build applications and if they wish to generate profit, simply sustain the ongoing development and maintenance costs or if contributing a piece of code to the world is payment enough for their efforts. In our current reality, lower price points, mass distribution networks and a proliferation of useful toolsets have allowed software developers a far more significant range of ideological decisions to make when they create software. They have a plethora of commercial and open source languages, tools, operating systems and even legal frameworks to choose from in order to develop and distribute their creations.

In this new environment it is also far easier to develop tools for the social sector than it ever has been. The advent of the PC in the 1980's made technology affordable for the first time to many non-profits. The PC created a market for the social sector that in large part did not exist in the costlier mainframe context. In the 90's, the Internet once again lowered the barriers by providing a technology that allowed non-profits to reach out and extend their constituencies at a far lower cost. Open source tools have unlocked even more development opportunities for this market. Open source tools have spurred commercial software developers to rethink their price structures in order not to lose this relatively new market consisting of literally millions of social purpose non-profits, educational institutions and health facilities globally.

Developers of commercial software maintain a straightforward profit-based ideology for any market they sell to. However, that does not preclude them from doing pro bono work or developing applications for the social sector that are heavily discounted or distributed freely. Open source developers operate on a number of levels as well. Some have strong ideological convictions that tools should be developed free of charge for the social sector as well as for any non-commercial user. Others are driven by a need to limit the dominance of a single, perceived commercial player. Still others simply wish to demonstrate their creativity to the world and to build a better mousetrap.

Whatever the motivation, development ideology can exist on a number of levels. Both the commercial and open source developer community may operate on development ideologies that are purely technical, focusing on what tools to use to build generic products for any sector. Word processors and spreadsheet products can be built using either commercial or open source tools, and following either commercial or open source principles of distribution. All sectors including the social sector have a need for these basic tools in whatever form they are built. However, the social sector also needs specialized mission-focused applications to meet their needs which are often not available as mass-produced shrink wrapped applications.

There are software designers who follow a development ideology specifically focused on designing tools for the social sector. As part of my philanthropic activities with the Open Society Institute, I am the co-founder and President of a 501C3 called Aspiration. Aspiration helps mission-focused software tools reach a broader market of non-profit users by marrying selected tool builders with non-profit technology support organizations. The objective is to develop better strategies of cooperation in order to enhance the successful design, rollout and support of applications to the social sector. Aspiration's mission mandates an ideological position supporting only tools that directly satisfy social mission agendas. However it works with tool builders who develop their applications using a variety of tools. For them the tools are secondary to the purpose of developing the applications. The supported applications reflect this diversity:

Martus: An open source human right monitoring tool.
FACTS: Food distribution and management tool for humanitarian relief organizations built by Microsoft.
ActionStudio, a web publishing and advocacy tool for grassroots organizations developed in Macromedia's Dreamweaver and Cold Fusion.
This approach introduces a lesser known cousin of open source, called community source. "Community software licenses" essentially facilitate the same goals as the open source model - but with proprietary software development tools. While the development tools remain proprietary, (cold fusion, Microsoft ASP, etc.), the social purpose applications developed from these tools are made available to other social purpose organizations through a community source license. All coding improvements are given back to the community for adoption and enhancement by others - this accelerates the creation, adoption and ongoing evolution of software to affect social change. Examples of this include Npower's TechAtlas, a technology assessment and planning tool, and TechRock's E-base, a community relationship management tool. This approach adopts the spirit and intent of open source but makes the underlying technology tool used to develop socially responsible applications a secondary consideration.

Finally there are also destructive software development ideologies. Some developers create viruses, worms, trojans and other harmful applications for no other purpose but to cause disruption. Destructive developer ideologies aside, commercial, non-commercial, or socially responsible development ideologies are all equally valid. They represent the product of their developer's creative interests in solving a particular problem.

Selection Ideology: Why is the technology chosen?

As a user, how do I choose a software application that best meets my particular requirements? Unfortunately, the questionable practice of applying software development ideology to the software selection process is becoming far too common and has created an unnecessary complication for non-profits trying to employ technology to meet their mission objectives. The idea that software selection choices should be made based primarily on the premise of free versus commercial technology and open source versus proprietary technology is entirely misguided.

I profess to be an agnostic when it comes to software selection ideology. Here I diverge from those who equate open source to open society. Years spent managing systems operations and satisfying the needs of real users meeting long term organizational objectives has made me a pure pragmatist in this regard. Personally, I am very happy that software developers make decisions to create free, commercial, proprietary and open source solutions. I applaud their various ideologies in developing these products, because it gives me what I want most: The freedom to choose the best solution for the job at hand. When I make a software selection decision, ideology goes right out the window. My decision is based on these operational prerequisites:

Do the application's functions meet the user specifications?
Do the design considerations meet project requirements?
Do the cost considerations meet project requirements?
Do the security considerations meet project requirements?
Do the networking considerations meet the project requirements?
Are the necessary resources there to program or deploy the...

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