Maybe I am wrong.

But what I have seen so far:

  • There is huge demand for further development of open source tools, of course, they are free to use and help businesses. There are some business models building on that but they have not necessarily enough paying customers to cover all demand - just check bug and feature lists of popular OSS projects.

  • The government esp. in EU talks a lot about open standards, digital souvereigncy etc. Though they still use themselves a lot of proprietary software, and also invest hundreds of millions to some projects to applying parties which then do research on things which are currently already state of the art.

Why would not governments say okay at least part of this "ICT R&D" budget goes to those OSS communities (or applicant commiters with recorded track of contribution) to develop/fix mostly critical toolsets?

  • 2
    Who says they don't? In the US, much academic research is funded by the government, and the computer software developed is generally open source. There's also a lot of open source software available from various national labs &c. For instance this software.llnl.gov/about which took me seconds to find with Google. There is a wealth of other government-financed open source software out there, and not just from the US, e.g: inria.fr/en/centre/sophia/innovation/software
    – jamesqf
    Sep 5 '19 at 3:52
  • 1
    One reason is that the commercial sector invests ever so much more in lobbying, emoluments, election campaigns, advertising, and graft.
    – agc
    Sep 5 '19 at 14:43

I can imagine a few reasons.

Not everything that is Open Source is worthy of funding just because it is Open Source

Lots of things are open source. Not all of it is useful for governments, or even useful for a general audience. In addition, there are lots of other things that compete for government funding that are arguably more socially desirable than open source software. Like roads or the healthcare system or taking care of poor people. Governments spend lots of money on helping poor people, and it gets looked at funny when it tries to spend money on helping mid-to-upper middle class people, which most software developers are.

Open source projects that are broadly useful often already have adequate funding

As you say, the ones that are useful to business are typically funded by businesses. You've mentioned forming businesses on top of OSS projects to monetize them, but this is not the most common model; for very useful projects (like, the Linux kernel) multiple companies, including those who are competitors, will contribute money and effort because it reduces their costs.

Software that is useful to governments is often not produced under open source licenses because the application is too narrow to support an open source community.

I work at a company that makes biometric software. Our customers are usually very large corporations or government agencies that want to run fingerprint background checks. There's not going to be an open source solution for that kind of thing because it's not actually possible for your average OSS developer to make at home, let alone something average users of computers want to use, because average people don't have a need, desire, or ability to run fingerprint background checks.

Governments do lots of things like that, so they're always going to need some highly customized software that to meet those requirements. The only reliable way that software gets made is under a proprietary business model in most cases.

It is not always easy to give money to open source projects because they don't always have the ability to easily accept payments from governments

Getting money from the government is actually really difficult if you aren't recieving it as part of an existing entitlement program or through the tax code. Governments have lots of rules about who to give money to and how to give money to them in exchange for goods and services. You usually have to put in a competitive bid to get paid, and that's a complicated process that requires very skilled and knowledgeable sales people who can work on that for a year or more. If you win that process, then you usually don't get money, but a purchase order that takes an even longer time before it becomes actual money that you can use.

Most open source projects, by contrast, are run by a small community of people who have a PayPal account or something else intended to accept small dollar donations from individual people. Governments typically can't just dump money in there the way a person can, and OSS projects can't afford to jump through all of the complex hoops a larger organization can to get money that other way.

  • Fingerprint background checking seems mundane... Input a print, abstract it to some appropriate data structure, securely look up number in database, output background if user has permission. Perhaps I'm missing something?
    – agc
    Sep 5 '19 at 14:40
  • @agc Yes, lots of details. Like... the database isn't usually yours, but belongs to someone else. So you need access to interfaces that belong to someone else. Often you have to go through intermediaries. Most of them use legacy software of one version or another, so the most common interfaces are SMTP based and use older versions of the standards. Sometimes you need to submit to multiple agencies at once, each one in a slightly different format, all with different turnaround times. Details a hypothetical Linus of Fingerprinting would not know in his basement and can't look up easily.
    – Joe
    Sep 5 '19 at 15:49
  • Thanks, those details improve the answer. Some of the objections are consequences of a proprietary closed source system. Old SMTP standards don't sound like that bad of a problem, (SMTP is a open standard), and OSS developers often cope with conflicting versions of standards. Unless the task is all somehow more complex than managing the entire Linux kernel, (14,000 contributors), we might easily underestimate those Basement Linuses out there, especially if they were better funded.
    – agc
    Sep 5 '19 at 19:58
  • @agc Yeah. It's not that Basement Linus isn't smart, it's that Basement Linus doesn't have access to the external systems, specifications, requirements, and hardware to make something useful for that niche, and the users in the niche are not used to dealing with Basment Linus, but engineering firms that can navigate the procurement process.
    – Joe
    Sep 5 '19 at 20:12

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