Open discussions turn the tide on Microsoft

If I start by mentioning open source computing, it is quite likely that I will lose your attention. But bear with me for a...

If I start by mentioning open source computing, it is quite likely that I will lose your attention. But bear with me for a moment, this is not another Microsoft-bashing exercise or a ransom demand for more penguin-power from Linux fundamentalists. Open source is suddenly becoming a respectable subject for discussion in the corridors of power.

Over the past month I have been involved in a number of public and private sector technology discussions and an intra-governmental conference and what I heard leads me to believe that perceptions are changing.

All of a sudden, perhaps encouraged by Computer Weekly's coverage of the Microsoft licensing protest, I am sensing a sea-change in attitudes. "IT expenditure is too high, unpredictable and quite unsustainable," I am hearing. "We are rapidly approaching a point where our lock-in to Microsoft technology resembles a blank cheque. There has to be a better way."

From the roundtable at last month's e-government conference in London there was even, "We are still using Windows 3.x and Windows NT. We can never catch up with the technology and by the time new guidelines and budgets are available, we are out of date and step with the technology again."

Historically, the open source argument has been driven by cave-dwelling zealots with beards, encouraged by IBM money from a distance. In some ways, there has been a Greenham Common style to the debate and, as a consequence, the sensible parts of the message rarely reached the boardroom. But this is changing.

I have heard senior figures in both the public and private sectors ask if it is possible to encourage a form of competitive co-existence between Microsoft's view of the future and the availability of open source solutions that might act as a substitute for Microsoft products.

We should accept that few people are prepared to sacrifice the attractive convenience of their Windows desktop for a thin client running Linux, Netscape Navigator and Star Office. But in education, in places such as City University, this is "the" desktop and a generational pull-through effect is beginning as students learn that the Internet and Windows are not mutually inclusive technologies.

More importantly, and with IBM's support, Linux on the server is starting to look increasingly attractive to businesses seeking to slash the spiralling cost of their IT. For many organisations the choice is one of either leveraging size, like the Health Service, to negotiate a more favourable Danegeld-type licensing deal with Microsoft, or to take a more courageous approach to the problem and explore areas where a well-entrenched Windows infrastructure might be replaced by cheaper and equally robust open source applications.

It is time that the Government declared a position on open source computing. Until it does, actions are unlikely to replace words, penguins will not fly through windows and IT costs will continue towards infinity.

Simon Moores is chairman of the Research Group

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