There have been a number of stories recently about the adoption of free
software in public school systems around the world. Certainly free
software has a lot of attributes which make it well suited for that role:
it is relatively secure, open to curious minds which wish to look inside
it, freely available for students to copy and use at home, easily adapted
to local languages, and easier on a school's (typically stretched) budget.
Of course, not everybody agrees that the use of free software is cheaper;
certain proprietary software companies, in particular, are trying to cast
doubt on that assertion. So the administration of a school contemplating a
switch to free software might well wonder: will it truly save money?
The British Educational Communications and Technology Agency decided that
it needed an answer to that question. So it took a detailed look at 48
British schools - 33 which were not using free software, and 15 which were
- to get a sense for their relative costs. The result of this work is now
available as a
glossy report [PDF], suitable for printing on heavy paper and handing
to a school administrator near you.
The study divided software usage into three broad categories:
(1) servers, (2) class and administrative computer operating
systems, and (3) classroom and administrative applications. The total
costs were summarized in each category, taking a broad view. Costs include
hardware and software, but also support - both purchased from outside and
provided by internal staff. Training was also included. In other words,
the study took into account all of those factors which, according to the
critics, make free software more expensive than the proprietary
The bottom-line result is quite clear:
The annual total cost per PC was less for nearly all the OSS
schools at both primary and secondary school levels. For OSS
schools, cost per PC at primary school level was half that of
non-OSS schools, and cost per PC at secondary school level was
around 20% less than that of the non-OSS schools.
Unsurprisingly, the study found that the best immediate results came from
the use of free software on server systems. There are more obstacles to
deployments on administrative and classroom systems. In some cases -
especially for school administrative functions - the necessary applications
are not yet available (the study notes that projects like SchoolTool are working to provide
those applications). There is also some opposition to free applications
from people who are trained in other packages. Tellingly, most of this
opposition seems to come from the teachers, not the students:
This willingness to "mix and match" was also mentioned by the head
teacher in the case study report on another primary school:
"Children don't seem to care if they have Word at home, or
StarOffice. At school they have never complained about which they
Teachers and administrators, like most adults, have a certain tendency to
get set in their ways and stick with what they already know. Children can
be more flexible. What these schools are seeing corresponds with your
editor's own experience: children have no problem working with free
software, and, if exposed to it, will take to it readily. Just don't
(speaking from experience here, again) expose your children to Battle For Wesnoth, or their homework will
In summary: this report is a good thing, as far as it goes. The flood of
hostile "total cost of ownership" studies is unlikely to slow in the near
future, so it is good to have contrary evidence from relatively unbiased
sources. There are, however, no end of reasons, beyond the financial ones,
for using free software in public schools, but this report ignores them
almost completely. At the lower school levels, free software can be made
available to students without licensing hassles or sanctimonious lectures
about not making copies. At higher levels it can teach the students much
about software itself, encourage them to experiment, and demonstrate how
cooperative work can yield benefits for everybody involved. A strict focus
on costs may provide a favorable picture, but risks creating the impression
that cost is the only reason for using free software. In the context of
the public schools, more than in many other situations, it is important
that people understand that there is far more to free software than "free
Comments (14 posted)
The folks at Open Source Risk Management have, for some time now, been
working on indemnification insurance for free software. The idea behind
this offering is that businesses which are worried about an SCO-style lawsuit
can purchase insurance turning that risk into a regular, predictable
business expense. This sort of service may well turn out to be a hard
sell, however; SCO's experience seems unlikely to inspire many copycat
acts. The risk of successful, copyright-based legal attacks against free
software currently seems to be quite low.
Patents may yet prove to be a
different story, though.
Meanwhile, OSRM, in conjunction with Kiln plc and Miller Insurance
Services, has come
up with a new idea: sell insurance to companies which fear GPL
Open Source Compliance Insurance will initially offer cover of up
to $10 million for direct loss suffered by the insured following a
finding of non-compliance with specific license agreements under
which open source code is obtainable. The insurance will indemnify
the insured for the loss of profits associated with the withdrawal
or alteration of a product incorporating non-compliant code or the
impaired valuation of an acquisition agreement exchanging open
source software. In certain circumstances the policy would pay the
costs to mitigate such losses including the expense of repair or
replacement of code that is found to infringe upon the General
Public License (GPL) or other Open Source licenses.
This is, in other words, a 180-degree change from the previous OSRM
offering. The previously-offered indemnification policies addressed concerns that free
software could be infringing on copyrights through the inclusion of
proprietary code. Now, instead, we have insurance to benefit those who
might just infringe the copyrights associated with free software. This
situation is, certainly, more likely to come about; here's another quote
from the press release:
Worldwide, more than thirty legal claims involving infringement of
open source licenses have been brought against corporations in the
last two years. In each case, plaintiffs have prevailed in
enforcing their rights to restrict the use of their code.
This statement, certainly, is a strong statement in favor of the
enforceability of free software licenses.
One might argue that this sort of insurance policy presents a moral
hazard. A company which hopes to ignore the requirements of the GPL could
ship a product without source, secure in the knowledge that, if somebody
calls them on it, they can fall back on the insurance policy to mitigate
their losses. The plan's fine print must certainly have language excluding
deliberate acts of noncompliance, but proving that a specific infringement
was willful could be a challenge.
Others might say that there should be no inadvertent infringement of the
GPL; any such infringement constitutes, at best, an extreme lack of due
diligence. Consider, however, the much-publicized cases where various
wireless routers have used GPL code in noncompliant ways. In these cases,
the final vendor - the one whose name is on the product - often has little
knowledge of what software was used by
the obscure, far-eastern supplier who actually made the product. As more
GPL rulings are handed down, it seems likely that resellers will start
asking more questions of their suppliers, but surprises still seem
possible. This particular risk - being betrayed by a supplier - seems like
a legitimate thing to insure against.
So OSRM and its partners might just find a market for this particular
offering. If, in the process, they make businesses feel more comfortable
about using free software in their products - and, perhaps, even helping
with the further development of that software - it should be a good thing
for the free software community as a whole.
Comments (3 posted)
on the EFF site: the broadcast flag is back, bigger and badder than ever.
The new halloween
, otherwise known as the "Analog Content Security
Preservation Act of 2005," would impose no end of restrictions. "The
unprotected analog outputs of computers will be, in perpetuity, restricted
to either DRM-laden standards, or to a 'constrained image', 'no more than
350,000 pixels'. Analog video which has been branded as 'do not copy', will
last for only ninety minutes only in the digital world - and will be
erased, literally frame by frame, megabyte by megabyte, from your PC,
without your control. You'll watch a two hour film, and as you watch the
final half hour, the first few scenes will be being dissolved away by
Comments (16 posted)
The recent discussion on improving LWN's readership led to one clear action
item: the addition of a feature which would allow subscribers to create
special links which they could use to point out interesting articles to
non-subscribers. These links would bypass the normal subscription gate,
allowing articles to be read while they are still current.
That feature has been implemented, and is now active. There is no limit on
the number of links a subscriber may create, and no limit on how many
people may read an article via a given link. A few caveats do apply,
- For the time being, only "project leader" subscribers have the ability
to create subscriber links. This restriction is meant to be
temporary; its main purpose is to slow the initial use of the new
feature while any remaining bugs are shaken out. It would, however,
be interesting to hear what people think of keeping subscriber links
as a differentiating feature for the high-level subscriptions.
- Subscriber links can be made for individual articles; just look for
the "send a link" line in the left column. These links cannot be made
for entire Weekly Edition pages, however.
- We reserve the right to turn off the subscriber link capability for
specific articles; the annual timeline is a case where we might do
that. No decisions have been made on that point, however, and the mechanism
to implement an exclusion policy has not yet been implemented.
- We reserve the right to turn off the whole thing if it looks like the
feature is being abused and hurting subscription sales. We do not
expect things to go that way, however.
Privacy stuff and details: for each link, we track who created it and the number of
hits it receives. That information will go away some time after the link
expires - which happens when the relevant article becomes freely
available. The links are constructed in such a way that they will continue
to work forever. Currently, following a subscriber link leads directly to
the article in question; in the future, we might throw in some sort of
encouragement to subscribe.
We are most interested to see how this new feature - which was driven by
requests from our subscribers - works out.
Comments (18 posted)
Page editor: Jonathan Corbet
Inside this week's LWN.net Weekly Edition
- Security: The escalation of the DRM war; New vulnerabilities in gallery, mantis, openvpn, ...
- Kernel: The development model and 2.6.14; What's going into 2.6.15; Power management changes; Fragmentation avoidance.
- Distributions: Testing Mandriva Linux 2006; OpenBSD 3.8 released; New: Nexenta, BeleniX, Nonux
- Development: The GNU Bayonne 2 Telephony Application Server,
new versions of OpenToro, Sendmail X, GNU Bayonne 2,
IHU, SSL-Explorer, Bricolage, Campsite, Wicket, Zope, PowerDNS,
phpBMS, GARNOME, Kicad, SQL-Ledger, Ember, Vultures, GORM, GNUmed,
amSynth, SBCL, PHP, 4Suite XML, Bugzilla, (H)gct.
- Press: Red Hat's open source projects, Zonker's favorite software tools,
Red Hat Wants Xen, GPL 3.0 revisions, LDAP configuration, Linux desktop
performance tuning, Cacti review, BeOS rises.
- Announcements: AOpen miniPC, Forgent increases JPEG patent suits, Novell appoints new
president, OpenDocument Fellowship petitions Microsoft, new
Audio Libre articles, BitDefender and Realm contests, LAC 2006 CFP,
Nokia open source site.
- Letters: LWN should change its name.