On Open Source and the State of Tech Journalism in Singapore

Uhhh...free = open source?

I rarely read local technology stories, given that my usual fare comprises of Techcrunch, Venturebeat, Valleywag, Ars Technica and the likes.  This Sunday morning counted as one of those statistical outliers, which was made even more special thanks to the rude shock that I received after reading an article on The Straits Times’ ‘Think’ section (subscription needed) titled “Turning Singapore on to open source” by Grace Chng.

My main gripe was with the general lack of insightful opinions being made.  Both sides of the coin were fervently researched, overly quoted and weighed.  In the end, I saw a statement that took the meaning of being a “Master of the Obvious” to a whole new plane altogether.

My sense is that there is room for proprietary software and open-source software to co-exist.

There was also a general lack of in-depth understanding of open source.  Some instances of that include:

Free software is called ‘open source’ because its code – the computer’s instructions – is open and freely published on the Internet.

Free software does not equate to open source.  One good example of free software that isn’t open source include Google Docs, or pretty much most of the Google Apps.  Please editor, check Wikipedia the next time something like this lands on your desk.

To switch to new open source-based IT applications risks compatibility issues which can arise, such as whether old data and documents can be read in the new system and vice versa.

Oh come on…open source applications pride themselves in cross compatibility.  If the files can’t be read by open source applications, they’re probably not going to be supported by expensive M$ stuff in the first place anyway.  I’m thinking expensive middleware…

Besides, a major aim of the IDA is to help grow the local software industry. If a solution is developed with free software, any new code must be returned to the open-source community. So why create a new government IT application that is cutting-edge but whose code is available for others to copy?

As Kelvin Quee rightfully pointed out over Skype chat, this “only applies to GNU-licensed software.  Others, such as Apache licenses do not require you to do so.  DWTFYW licenses neither.”  Besides, it’s common knowledge that open source is great for proliferating standards and encouraging innovation on top of what’s already been done.  I would have adopted a longer-term view and take the stand that giving away Public Service Infrastructure (PSI) freely as an open source project would have done wonders for Singapore’s dreams of exporting its e-Government expertise!

Any start must begin with a mindset change by the public sector and businesses still exclusively using licensed software.

It does not hurt for any public- sector agency to pilot a few non-crucial applications using open- source software. Schools may be a good place to start, with students using free software like OpenOffice or Google Docs.

It’s a sad sad day for tech journalism in Singapore.  The true issues behind why open source has yet to take off in Singapore were not addressed (avoided perhaps?), and any noble intentions to encourage the use of open source software within the Singapore Government would have fallen by the wayside.

I eagerly look forward to the day where standards for technology journalism in Singapore get their long-overdue boost.  In the meantime, you bet’cha I’ll be counting down to the end of my Straits Times subscription.

About James Chan

James Chan is an entrepreneur, investor, geek, photographer and husband/father based out of Singapore. Apart from frequent travels to Vietnam, Myanmar and Indonesia for work, James can also be found online via his trusty 15" Retina MacBook Pro or iPhone 6+.