“Open source is the key for Europe in the next wave of digitalisation”

This is a debate article. The opinions expressed are the writer’s own.

DEBATE. The software market is dominated by a few very large non-European companies. It locks in industries and undermines Europe’s digital sovereignty, write Jonas Feist and Tomas Gustavsson, APELL.

Open source software has existed since the use of computers began to grow in the 1960s. Open source software is based on open and collaborative innovation that takes place between software developers and users, and allows them to freely use, study, improve and share the software.

However, since the 1970s, the software industry has relied mostly on closed software, closed formats and networking to strengthen the industry’s dominant players instead of users – whether they are individuals, companies or governments of countries.

With closed software, the user becomes dependent on the provider when it comes to compatibility with other software. Its users become locked into specific vendors and are thus prevented from choosing better software, or products that better suit their specific needs.

In practice, today the software market is dominated by a few very large, non-European companies. The dependence of these companies’ whims on foreign governments becomes even stronger as proprietary software vendors move their offerings to the cloud, where they have even more control and can change functions at any time. From a societal perspective, this strategic lock-in of industries and countries is at the heart of what undermines Europe’s digital sovereignty.

More proactive promotion and more proactive investment in open source software at European and national level would promote more than economic growth in Europe. It would also stimulate innovation and enable the establishment of a successful European IT industry rooted in a broad ecosystem of companies, of all sizes, developing and providing open source software.

It would create jobs in the IT sector and increase Europe’s ability to create its digital future. These were the clear conclusions of a recent study published by the European Commission.

More specifically, the study indicates that the approximately 1 billion euros that EU companies have invested in open source software, OSS (open source software) in 2018 have already generated between 65 and 95 billion euros in economic growth, and to increase investments by 10 percent would create annual GDP growth of between 0.4 percent and 0.6 percent. Furthermore, it would contribute to more than 600 new startups in the EU’s IT sector.

These figures show a very high potential return on investment in the CIS. The need for digital independence together with the extensive positive effects on the economy from investments in the CIS justifies a new level of political commitment.

In contrast, open source licensing creates a software framework that allows it to be freely developed to solve new challenges, adapt to new circumstances, and evolve to become more efficient. Users are given true freedom of choice. Individuals or companies can contribute with more innovative solutions that are available to all developers and users who are interested, as open source does not add legal or contractual barriers to collaboration.

In other words, the US allows competition and innovation to flourish, so that software users in the public and private sectors can more easily access software products that suit their needs at a reasonable cost, without strategic lock-in.

The European Commission’s study confirms that there is already a thriving CIS sector in Europe, with SMEs at the forefront of growth. There is a good foundation to build on. The key issue is to identify policy decisions at EU and national level, which allow the European CIS sector to develop even more so that it can reach its full potential and the European economy reap all the benefits of increased investment in the CIS.

We at APELL (European Open Source Business Association), believe that the political priorities should be:

1. Establishment of specific open source strategies at EU level and in each EU country, focused on improving economic growth, innovation and digital sovereignty

2. Prioritize Open Source when purchasing software in the public and private sector, so that it becomes impossible to create impenetrable supplier dependency

Promote investment in the CIS, for example by supporting high-risk and R & D-intensive processes related to SMEs creating an initial code base and bringing it to market, and more general tax incentives for open source grants

4. Increase public funding for specific and strategic open source projects, specific to small and medium-sized enterprises, through existing and new initiatives

5. Place open source at the heart of digital knowledge strategies and computer science education across Europe, with the aim of promoting innovation in the long run

Above areas should be the starting point for building a foundation for a new European digital industry that uses open source for what it does best: innovate, stir and deliver digital sovereignty. Regardless of digital arena, cloud, AI, cyber security or the Internet of Things, open source software is at the heart of innovation and Europe has a chance to lead it.

Jonas Feist

Tomas Gustavsson

for APELL (European Professional Association for Free Software), Europe’s Open Source Business Association