The news that the London Borough of Newham is putting Windows on trial against open-source systems has doubtless helped fuel the argument that open source is getting a foot in the door of government. That was certainly the consensus at the Great Linux debate earlier this month.
But wait a minute, let me look back to my notes from a Eurim meeting at IBM South Bank, less than 12 months ago. Here we are.
“Linux is an unstoppable disruptive technology that IBM needs to make money from”, and “How do we separate open source from open standards?”, and from government, “We need to avoid proprietary lock-in and for that we need an interoperable IT structure that also solves the single supplier dilemma”. And so on.
It strikes me that since then we actually haven’t come all that far. In fact, this rather sounds like the trials that were discussed around the table at the same meeting, in the face of mounting pressure from the open-source lobby for government to be seen to be acknowledging the existence of an open-source alternative to its software supply dilemma.
So now, we have The Office of Government Commerce (OGC), responsible for all Whitehall’s IT procurement, announcing that it will conduct nine trials of software packages, which include both Microsoft and Linux solutions, across government departments chosen for the task.
In order to demonstrate the necessary impartiality, the OGC said it would “measure the effectiveness and cost-benefits of IT systems based on open-source products". IBM, one of the leading advocates of open-source software, will carry out the tests.
This is, perhaps, rather like asking Microsoft to run a credible comparison between Linux and Windows or New Labour to measure itself against the Conservatives. The result is likely to be the one that everyone expects and I can tell you now that open source will emerge from the trials with flying colours.
Microsoft is surprisingly sanguine about the whole thing. After all, “it still has £100m of business passing through the OGC and, although the trials may represent the very thin edge of the wedge, we won’t see members of the Microsoft government sales team selling copies of The Big Issue on Westminster bridge just yet.
Is this good news for the taxpayer? Possibly. It is evidence of the government jump-starting its own open-source initiative to bring it in line with the interests of other European states. The OGC is looking for value-for-money procurement and, if an open-source solution can deliver the goods at a fraction of the cost of another option, then perhaps, we will not see the government spending £96m on the NHS e-mail system again when the original specification suggested £3m.
Although several local authorities are involved in the trial, I will reach for my little black book again, as I’ve been writing case studies in the local government sector recently. Here’s a quote from one of the UK’s largest city authorities which illustrates the enthusiasm I’m seeing for the adoption of open-source solutions: “We have resisted the community software argument and will continue to do so, because you cannot run global organisations on a spindle of credibility, you need a strong, robust strategy and a reliable and consistent point of contact”.
This initiative can best be seen as a policy enabler, in that a UK government policy on open source already exists and, by running a series of test deployments, the OGC is probably trying to kick-start the policy.
This may make me sound against the whole idea, but I’m not. I’m simply presenting what I’m seeing as the facts behind a certain amount of "Blue" spin. Central government needs to avoid lock-in and it’s looking for better value for money. Windows NT is being phased out rapidly in the public sector and now is as good a time as any to decide whether the future is one that is wedded to Microsoft on the one side or EDS and IBM on the other.
If this creates a level playing field, stimulates competition and government stops squandering money on software and produces more reliable and secure systems, then we should all march on Whitehall and cheer.
It is, however, a little premature to celebrate the real arrival of open source in government, unless, of course, it has arrived to fill the gap left by the loss of democracy.
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Setting the world to rights with the collected thoughts and opinions of leading industry analyst Dr Simon Moores of Zentelligence.
Acting globally, Zentelligence (Research) advises governments, suppliers, business and the media on the evolution, application and delivery of leading-edge technologies and specialises in the areas of eGovernment and information security.
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