The chief executive of a leading supplier of open-source software has issued a challenge to the open-source development community: Work with educators to free schools from dependence on more costly proprietary software programs.

In his keynote address at the LinuxWorld Conference and Exposition in San Francisco recently, Matthew Szulik, Red Hat president and chief executive officer, criticized developers of proprietary software for allowing money to determine whether children “are allowed to participate in an information-based society.”

Szulik also proposed the creation of an Open Source Education Corp., modeled after the Civilian Corps of Engineers. Members of the corporation would work with educators to improve the quality of local technical education, he said, thereby “bypassing proprietary, high-cost vendors.” (For the full text of Szulik’s speech, see Viewpoint, page 32.]

Skeptics might dismiss Szulik’s call for an open-source movement in America’s schools as self-serving, but Szulik, in an interview with eSchool News, insisted his plea stems from a genuine concern about public education.

“We are most vulnerable as a nation in K-12,” Szulik said. He said budget restrictions often prevent schools from providing students with adequate exposure to technology and that the proprietary technology used by schools to date has not been subjected to the more rigorous vetting that open-source software invites from a wide community of users and developers.

Open-source software—software for which the company releases the source code, opening it up for alteration and customization by users—has gained a foothold in other areas of the world, especially South America and Europe.

In these areas, governments have passed or are considering legislation that would compel schools and government agencies to use free or open-source software unless proprietary software were the only realistic option. Brazil has taken an early lead in this movement, and the country’s government reportedly spent just $200 million on software last year.

“You have to start with need,” said Szulik, explaining the growth of the open-source movement in countries poorer than the United States. But in this country, Szulik asserted, pressure from proprietary software companies and from unions has kept the open-source movement from taking off.

The debate between open-source and proprietary software advocates has existed since the early days of computing. “In the beginning of computing, you always shipped the code with the software,” said Danese Cooper, director of open-source programs at Sun Microsystems.

This practice changed when individual programmers found they could secure their employment by writing code that was difficult to understand, Cooper said—and companies realized consumers would have to return to them for updates and fixes if the software were proprietary.

Microsoft took its position early, when a young Bill Gates wrote the now-famous “Open Letter to Hobbyists,” in which he decried the practice of sharing purchased software. Although Microsoft—which did not respond to requests for an interview—is far from the only proprietary software vendor that schools deal with, its size makes it a lightning rod for the debate.

Despite its relative obscurity compared with more widely used proprietary solutions, open-source software is slowly emerging as a grassroots movement in K-12 education. One such success story is Haywood County Schools in North Carolina, which constructed a computer lab using computers with old 386 and 486 processors running Linux.

The open-source lab cost less than $5,000, compared with Szulik’s estimate of $40,000 for a comparable lab of computers running on proprietary software.

But open-source advocates are fighting an uphill battle against perceptions—especially in schools, which often are conservative in their approach to technology.

The need to learn a new software package or operating system—often with spotty or nonexistent support—is one of the factors that holds back adoption of open-source products.

“There is an initial pain point to learn it,” said Sun’s Cooper, who acknowledges that programs written by the open-source community often are written with other aficionados in mind and skirt the needs of novice users.

Proprietary software vendors have a stake in ensuring that students learn on their software—and develop a brand loyalty in the process. This has not been lost on supporters of the open-source movement.

“Get them early, train them to love you, and when they grow up, they’ll work on your stuff,” said Cooper.


Red Hat

Sun Microsystems