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McNealy arrived late, delayed by a meeting at the Pentagon. You could tell he was tired. He’d flown to DC from California with a stopover in Dallas where he stayed up late watching hockey as his beloved San Jose Sharks fell to the Stars in the 4th overtime. Nonetheless, by the time lunch was finished at 1:30pm we had made good progress answering moderator Lawrence MacDonald’s query – does sharing and openness really matter for development? Based on insights from the speakers and the audience, it turns out the answer is “yes” and “in a variety of ways.” Less clear was what to do about it.

McNealy Slide Scott McNealy, co-founder and Chairman of Sun Microsystems, was hosted yesterday by the Center for Global Development to speak on the topic “Open Source, Open Education and Eco-friendly: Can Sharing Improve Policy?” McNealy and Sun have been forceful voices for open standards and open source. (In fact, McNealy claimed the invention of open source and pointed out that Sun developed and released the TCP/IP protocol upon which the internet is based.)

The event was moderated by a skeptical Lawrence MacDonald, CGD’s Director of Communications and Policy. McNealy was introduced by Ed Scott CGD’s co-founder and board chair, as well as former Sun employee. Ellen Miller, Executive Director at the Sunlight Foundation, and I were on the panel. The eclectic audience represented a cross-section of Washington with people from international agencies, foundations, non-profits, think tanks, consulting firms, academia, and publishing.

The session made progress on addressing three questions. 1) What is openness? 2) Why does it matter for development and policy? 3) What do we do to increase it?

What do we mean by “openness” and “sharing?” The discussion opened with McNealy wishing he owned certain intellectual assets. He pointed out that owning the English language (or even French or just the letter “y”) would be very lucrative. Fortunately for us, he doesn’t. By the end of the session we had talked about sharing in the context of software like Sun’s Java language and Solaris operating system, but also around other assets including education resources and infrastructure like that provided by Curriki.org, vaccines like for polio, personal health records standards, and ideas, proposals and projects. Broadly, the resulting definition implied something is shared when we can use it, often for free and we can examine and perhaps modify or enhance it. A shared asset often has a community of contributors, beyond the originator, extending and improving it.

Why does sharing and openness matter? I summarize this discussion to five bullet points which are slightly different from McNealy’s.

  • Reduces licensing/start-up costs – As McNealy reiterated, “Did I mention ‘free?’” Shared materials are often available free. The potential for savings is large whether it is the unknown amount spent by government on software licenses or the $4.3B spent in the US on textbooks every year. As examples, we learned at lunch that PAHO is moving toward open source tools for much of their work and Global Giving is working to open up their code and data.
  • Reduces switching costs – McNealy explained that in the traditional calculation of costs, we consider acquisition and licensing costs and operating costs but forget to include exit costs. He pointed out that exit costs can dwarf the others with the example of the cost of switching from English to Mandarin. Open standards and sharing enable development of an ecosystem of providers to choose from. The cost of switching helps to explain why the Library of Congress has “format rot” from proprietary electronic formats for which readers are no longer available and much of US Government technology infrastructure looks as though it belongs in a museum.
  • Promotes Transparency – McNealy explained that open source software is safer because you can’t hide anything in it; the code is available for examination. Ellen Miller extended this concept to transparency in government operations pointing out that the Freedom of Information Act is oriented the wrong way -- it is all our information and we shouldn’t have to ask for it. Sonal Shah explained that Google.org was funding budget transparency programs around the world to improve fiscal responsibility.
  • Increases innovation – Openness enables an ecosystem that engenders creativity. In his introduction, Ed Scott told a technology story that may have the most potential impact for developing countries. He explained that in the early days (i.e., the 1980’s) Digital Equipment Corporation, with its closed hardware and software, was a giant in its industry and an ambitious target for fledgling Sun. Thirty years later DEC is non-existent and open technology thrives. McNealy argued, in particular, that China’s adoption of Sun’s open software and hardware will help nurture their technology industry.
  • Accelerates progress – Harnessing the support of many eyes and minds from a community can address problems faster. At lunch following the public session, Karin Hillhouse from Ashoka’s Changemaker’s project, reported that open competition around ideas had reduced the time required for an RFP and proposal process from several years to several months.

What should we do? At the end of the panel I asked the question, to the extent that we agree sharing is a good thing for development, what do we do in our organizations to promote it? Ellen Miller responded by explaining the barriers are largely cultural. Non-profit organizations aren’t accustomed to sharing and government is even worse. The barrier was linked to a generation gap. McNealy illustrated with a story from a conference of for-profit CIOs. Asked where they spent money on software licenses, traditional organizations responded with the names of traditional vendors – Microsoft, SAP, Oracle. Almost universally, new generation tech executives didn’t spend money on licenses at all – they relied instead on open source technologies.

After all, did I mention “free?”

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CGD blog posts reflect the views of the authors drawing on prior research and experience in their areas of expertise. CGD does not take institutional positions.