Free open source software could benefit UK companies but it needs a "fairy godmother" to co-ordinate development and understanding of the technology, according to a leading UK research group.
In their current state open source products, which include the Linux operating system and a host of applications, are too fragmented for widespread consideration by corporates, a report from the National Computing Centre (NCC) argues.
It notes that interest in open source has been boosted by rising licensing costs, such as Microsoft's recent restructuring, but it concludes that the problems involved in finding, implementing and maintaining alternative solutions carry too much risk. It recommends that the open source community find a champion in the UK to co-ordinate, publicise and advise businesses in the scope and implementation of products.
Michael Gough, chief executive of the NCC, said, "The UK would greatly benefit from the establishment of a stable alternative to the use of proprietary software, both in terms of business innovation and competitiveness, and in support of the UK software industry."
Gough suggests that the NCC, an independent research organisation with a membership spanning education, public sector and commercial organisations, is ideally placed to form the hub of an open source awareness body.
Andrew Hopkirk, head of research and development at the NCC, said, "Open source offers a great opportunity for the UK but it needs a fairy godmother outside the industry to help it to succeed.
"It needs guidance by an intermediary that can bring people together and consolidate their requirements so that software developers have something to respond to," Hopkirk added.
If IT development is to thrive again in the UK, open source could be the catalyst, the NCC said. This has been recognised by government initiatives in Europe, notably in Germany and France, to promote the use of Linux and other software within businesses and public sector departments. There is also direct support available from the European Commission.
Although the public sector has recently struck several licensing deals with Microsoft, and is basing e-government services on Microsoft technologies, the Department of Trade & Industry (DTI) recently backed the Openforum Europe user group to investigate the business implications of open source software. This is partly the springboard for the NCC study that has been funded by the DTI.
Based on interviews with 30 IT professionals, Open Source, The UK Opportunity sets out steps to encourage adoption of non-proprietary software. Its research revealed that the fragmented uptake of products is mainly caused by uncertainty about what open source software is; worries about support and liability; and difficulties in identifying products to suit particular situations.
Open source software is often seen as the Linux operating system and its supporting raft of products but the movement predates Linux by two decades.
The name describes the philosophy - that the source code is made publicly available to anyone, which opens the door to customisation. Proprietary software, such as Microsoft Windows, is only available to a select few who hold the power over what improvements or modifications can be made. Open source applications are available to run on many of the proprietary operating systems such as Windows and Unix.
If the NCC gets the go-ahead to establish itself as a hub for the UK open source movement, it will gain support from existing open source developers.
Scott Harrison, director for Northern Europe of Linux distributor Redhat, said, "In the US, Red Hat has set up bodies to promote open source generally and we could help the NCC by showing how this works.
"If it results in good, solid, proven open source products, UK IT bills could be reduced by hundreds of millions of pounds," Harrison added.
- Provide independent support and guidance on availability and suitability of software
- Set up a national library of open source software and compliance tests for reliability and interoperability
- Create standards to promote excellence in development, distribution and implementation
- Promote technologies and standards and the establishment of a clear cost of ownership model
- Appoint an independent convenor of initiatives to identify, co-ordinate and leverage UK market opportunities.