Mark Johnson of OSS Watch opens up about the challenges of open source procurement

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What I've learned from the open source way

The OSS Watch blog has been on our radar for a while now as a great resource for open source commentary. We've looked to their team, including development manager Mark Johnson, for thought leadership on how open source software is being used and to gauge the pulse of the open source movement. I wanted to find out more about what Mark does day-to-day to promote better understanding of open source. He's got a knack for communication: concise with impact.

The Basics

  • Name: Mark Johnson
  • username: marxjohnson
  • Location: Oxford, United Kingdom
  • Occupation/Employer/Position: Development Manager, OSS Watch, University of Oxford
  • Open source connection: Not a person, but a community: Spread Firefox, the online guerrilla marketing campaign for Firefox 1.0 was my first glimpse in the open source world
  • Favorite open source tool or application: There's so many! I think I'll have to go with vim.
  • Favorite topic: Education

Open up to us.

I'm pretty much your standard geek. I like computers, science fiction, heavy metal, and beer. I'm currently working for OSS Watch, the unbiased open source advisory service based at the University of Oxford, where my time is divided between software development (currently Java) and providing advice to people involved in open source. This can involve explaining open source licenses, recommending tools and processes for open source collaboration, or sometimes just talking about my experiences. My biggest involvement in a particular open source community was probably in my last job where I worked as a Moodle developer. I've contributed code to the Moodle core, as well as releasing several plugins which have been fairly widely used (and some that haven't). Outside of work, I co-present The Ubuntu Podcast, which is a podcast about technology, open source, and anything else we decided is interesting to talk about (plus a bit about the Ubuntu operating system). I also help organise OggCamp, a free culture unconference in the UK with a strong community focus.

What open tools and data help you get things done, and how do they help you?

I'm sure most people say this, but git and GitHub are two key tools I use for sharing code and managing contributions. I've released several open source projects on GitHub and had some great success in attracting contributions, even for relatively minor tools. I do all my work (and play) on Ubuntu, which serves me as a development environment, web server, media center, gaming machine, and general productivity desktop. Ubuntu's popularity means that cool hacks are often implemented with Ubuntu in mind and can be installed easily through the Personal Package Archives system. It also tends to be the focus of commercial software companies like Valve who are venturing into Linux support. I've run quite a few websites in my time, earlier on using various custom-developed CMSs written in PHP, but more recently with widely used tools like Wordpress and Drupal. I also manage one site with Jekyll, a ruby tool which is used for GitHub pages. It's great if you want a simple system that focuses on the content, but you dont want the overhead of installing and maintaining a web application.

What do you wish were more open?

Anything that uses DRM. I can understand that not everything is going to be released under open or Creative Commons licenses, but putting artificial (and ineffective) restrictions on how files can be used just creates a poor and inconvenient experience for your genuine customers. Sure, I can get an Audible app on my Android phone to listen to my audiobooks, but what if I prefer the interface or features of a different audio player? What if I want to listen on a device that Audible doesn't support? I've paid a license for the content, I think it should be up to me to choose how I consume it. In addition, I feel DMCA-style rules give undue legal protection to DRM measures. While copyright law in the UK is moving forward to protect format-shifting for personal use, if the content is DRM encumbered the laws against circumventing DRM will still trump your right to format-shift the content. The music industry saw the light after a while and moved to de facto standard formats with no DRM. It would be good to see other industries do the same.

What are the biggest challenges to openness that you encounter, either at work or in your life?

One of the areas OSS Watch works in is procurement, to help people consider free and open source solutions equally with proprietary ones. There are a few challenges we come across here.

Firstly, there's often confusion around the term "free software." While we think it's important that people understand the principles of software freedom, since a big advantage of a free and open source software (FOSS) solution is the freedom to customise it without additional permission, too often the term is misunderstood. We often get people talking to us about their uses of free software, when they're really using freeware or the free usage tier of a software-as-a-service platform, both of which miss the point. We recently conducted our bi-annual National Software Survey of UK colleges and universities to find out how software is used and procured in educational institutions. One key consideration given for choosing software was "interoperability," although risk of vendor lock-in was given very little consideration. Looking at the actual software used, Microsoft solutions were ubiquitous. This suggests to me that when institutions talk about "interoperability," they mean "software from one vendor works with other software from that vendor" and not "different software supporting open standards all works together." This is clearly a problem for FOSS adoption.

Finally, even where procurement policies in institutions clearly state that FOSS and proprietary solutions should be considered equally, this isn't always backed up by procurement practice. The way in which companies are invited to tender or to demonstrate a solution for consideration can unfairly advantage those who charge high licensing fees, and can therefore afford to spend a lot on pre-sales. A company offering a FOSS solution will probably make most of its money from support contracts, so might not be able to run a free demonstration workshop. Making this understood and identifying how practices can be adapted is a big challenge.

Why choose the open source way?

Honestly, it has never occurred to me to work any other way. I've been programming since I was at school and started working with interpreted languages which meant the code was open for all to see. I never considered that what I'd done should be a secret, and by sharing my work I've gathered fixes and contributions which have made my projects even better.

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Jen leads a team of community managers for the Digital Communities team at Red Hat. She lives in Raleigh with her husband and daughters, June and Jewel.


What a great interview. I listen to Mark every week on the Ubuntu Podcast, and was quite interested to learn more about his work with OSS watch. Thank goodness for those intrepid folks fighting procurement battles on behalf of OSS around the world.

A great interview. Especially cogent was Mark Johnson's explanation of the procurement process and how it can be skewed against FOSS. And it probably happens more often than we suspect.

I also listen to Mark on the Ubuntu Podcast, but didn't know of his work for OSS Watch. I agree that procurement practices make it difficult for FLOSS to "get a foot in the door".

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