Two of the darkest moments for open source in the UK involved the loss of major public projects. The first was Newham Borough Council, which ran a high-profile trial of open source only to ditch it at the last moment, after magically receiving an offer it couldn't refuse from Microsoft – which cynics suggested was the main motivation for the open source exercise in the first place.
This was bad news for free software, because it enabled Microsoft to do two things. First, it could claim that an independent body had tried open source and found it wanting, and secondly, it was able to use Newham as a showcase for its public sector technology.
In some ways, the second defeat was even worse. It involved a massive contract with the NHS that was far-reaching in scope:
Microsoft has won a £500m contract to provide desktop software to the National Health Service. The deal followed personal negotiations between Microsoft CEO Steve Ballmer and NHS IT chief Richard Granger.
The contract runs for nine years, with break points every three years, and covers up to 900,000 licences for Microsoft's Windows operating system and desktop software. It should help the Health Service cut £112m from its licensing costs in the next three years and £330m if the contract runs its full term.
As a result of this lock-in to Microsoft products and protocols, Newham and the NHS have become symbols of all that is wrong with public procurement in the UK. Against that background, the following two pieces of news assume a particular importance.
Newham London Borough Council has scrapped the controversial 10-year Memorandum of Understanding (MOU) it signed with Microsoft in 2004 and drawn up a new agreement with a new set of deliverables.
The council decided Microsoft's flagship government contract failed to demonstrate its value, four years after it was signed.
And then the following:
NHS Connecting for Health has co-founded an open source healthcare software programme, called Open Health Tools, headed up by Skip McGaughey, a co-founder of the Eclipse Foundation, a development consortium.
Other members include Australia’s National e-Health Transition Authority, the US Veteran’s Health Administration service, and Canada Health Infoway. Health standards agencies, universities, and suppliers including BT, IBM, Oracle and Red Hat are also involved.
The aim of the programme is to set internationally interoperable platforms under an agreed framework, as the NHS moves to electronic patient records under its £12.4 billion Connecting for Health programme.
The NHS is a major Microsoft customer, and last year signed a large deal to upgrade to Windows Vista. But, it always maintained it would continually evaluate open source.
I'd hardly claim that this means open source has won, but it represents an extraordinary turnaround in two areas that I'd given up for lost. If nothing else, it indicates the almost irresistible case for using open source, even in environments that have hitherto opted for the Microsoft monoculture.