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Value of open-source software touted

OPEN SECRET A group that includes senior government officials from 13 countries has compiled a road map for creating national policies on open-technology standards


In a report to be presented at the World Bank yesterday, a group that includes senior government officials from 13 countries will urge nations to adopt open-information technology standards as a vital step to accelerate economic growth, efficiency and innovation.

The 33-page report is a road map for creating national policies on open-technology standards and comes at a time when several countries -- and some state governments -- are pursuing plans to reduce their dependence on proprietary software makers, notably Microsoft, by using more free, open-source software.

The project, begun by the Berkman Center for Internet and Society at the Harvard Law School, gathered government officials from China, India, Thailand, Denmark, Jordan, Brazil and elsewhere at a three-day meeting in Silicon Valley in February to discuss technology standards and economic development. The meeting was followed by e-mail exchanges, conference calls and postings on a shared Web site.

The group defines an open standard as technology that is not owned by a single company and is openly published. Still, there is a huge debate in industry and among policymakers about how far openness should go.

The report makes clear that government policy should "mandate technology choice, not software development models." It also points out that open-technology standards -- the digital equivalent of a common gauge for railroad tracks -- are not the same as open-source software. Open source is a development model for software in which code is freely shared and improved by a cooperative network of programmers.

Even so, the spread of open-source software in recent years has probably been the most striking example of the benefits of openly sharing information technology to reduce costs and make it easier for users themselves to innovate.

"Open source does not define an open information and communications technology ecosystem, but it can be an important transformative element," the report states. "To date, open source has been the most disruptive element of the entire open agenda, provoking re-examination of information and communications technology ecosystems and policies."

Even though the report did not name any companies, Microsoft, the world's largest software maker, has been the prime target of open-source advocates. And the Berkman Center sought support from IBM and Oracle, two Microsoft rivals, to help pay for the three-day conference. Both are champions of Linux, the popular open-source operating system that is an alternative to Windows from Microsoft.

Microsoft is a corporate sponsor of the Berkman Center. In the last few years, Microsoft has been an active participant in Internet and Web groups that have developed standards so that data can be shared by different software programs. That allows the information -- about a person or bank account, say -- to be exchanged, but the digital equivalent of the envelope carrying the information can be proprietary.

Some countries and states want to go further, promoting the adoption of open formats for documents, spreadsheets and presentations, which are alternatives to Microsoft's formats for its dominant Office programs like Word, Excel and Powerpoint.

Massachusetts, for example, recently proposed shifting to open-document formats in government offices. The comment period for its proposal ended yesterday.

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