UK government and open source: is it a little too late?

The British Government’s decision to increase its use of open source software has been welcomed by many businesses, but it is very late in the game.


Increased government acceptance of open source can both help accelerate the development of the UK’s IT sector, and also increase the efficiency, both in terms of costs and effectiveness, of the public sector which should both help the economy and also allow public funds to be better deployed. But … it’s very late in the game.

Thus far, the government’s hesitance to adopt open source, and its continued loyalty to, and dependence upon, in particular, Microsoft, has stifled growth in one of the key areas of software development, and has put the UK in a position of significant disadvantage, set against its competitors.

Over the last 10 years, open source has emerged as a force in the software industry, especially for those in the business world. The web runs on open source systems based on Apache™, JBoss®, Linux®, MySQL™, PHP® and Ruby on Rails™, while in the mobile world Nokia has released Symbian’s source code and Google its Linux-based Android platform, which is open source as well.

It happens that Symbian is the most common operating system for smartphones in Europe, and Google’s Android platform is growing at a strong pace.

Open source development has been a boon for America’s Silicon Valley, where it has played (and continues to do so) a significant role in the development of the web 2.0 ecosystem. But the UK continued to choose Microsoft solutions, employing scores of highly priced consultants whose job is to build applications on top of Microsoft platforms.

All this seems might seem great in theory: Microsoft is the world’s biggest software company and does produce very high quality technology. But the government’s IT focus has been unbalanced. Outside the public sector, much of the software business has moved to an open source model. Developers can often use open source software to build proof-of-concept models at no cost, and reduce expenses to only key applications and the support of real, live systems.

Consider that in 2007, Joe Harley, the Chief Information Officer at the Department for Work and Pensions, told the Government UK IT Summit that 70 percent of public IT projects fail. That is, most of the projects paid for with taxpayers’ money and developed specifically for local and national governments, are scrapped because they either become too big to complete, or because they simply don’t work.

Harley pointed out, quite obviously, that the government must find ways to increase software quality while also reducing spending.

The British private sector has already addressed this problem: for several years now, approximately 20 percent of the companies use open source software as part of their solutions development process. Compare that with the open source take up, which has been as low as a paltry one percent in the public sector. Strategic use of open source allows agencies to bring together different technology components, to create more complex applications at a far lower cost than would otherwise be the case. It’s a very simple and obvious way of recession–proofing organisations with high IT spend – but it hasn’t been encouraged.

And despite the Government’s claim that they’re wholeheartedly moving toward open source solutions, they still continue to purchase more Office licenses and sing their praises.

But recent statistics from both Gartner and Forrester show that the efficiencies gained with Microsoft technologies can be easily dwarfed by open source options – some experts say by as much as five times than in the first year alone.

The money saving aspect to open source is only one reason for the government to support the movement. As the country’s largest IT buyer, and its biggest point of IT failure, the government could also help encourage the growth of open source companies around the UK. Such growth has helped in places like Silicon Valley, where countless companies build their fortunes on available venture capital and an ecosystem of open source developers. In the UK, we have had a vibrant financial sector, and many potential sources of venture capital, but the ecosystem has been weakened by those whose job it has been to oversee it.

Tom Watson MP, former Minister for Digital Engagement, announced that open source software would be on a level playing field with proprietary software such as Windows, and that open source software will be adopted "when it delivers best value for money."

This is certainly a start, but the British Government must make a strong statement and change its attitude both officially and in practice, in order to help lead the rest of the UK technology sector forward.

Something doesn’t make sense about the current administration’s attitude. They often fall back on the outdated notion that open source software is not as “safe” as its proprietary cousins. But the suggestion that open source software is insecure or otherwise inferior to proprietary systems is preposterous. Allowing developers to access the underlying code of a system is akin to allowing a mechanic to work on the engine of a car. Would we say that a car where the manufacturer had welded the bonnet closed is less likely to be stolen than it would otherwise be? Of course not.

By embracing open source software, the British Government could lead the way in creating an ecosystem of developers and software that could energize technological innovation and, in turn, the broader UK economy.

It is time for the UK government to wake up, save money, make IT work and start leading.

Mark Watson is CEO of Volantis Systems

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