Open Enterprise Interview: Mark Taylor

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One of the central features of the Open Enterprise blog will be interviews with key players in the free software world. By getting the background from the open horse's mouth – or should that be horse's open mouth? - I hope that we can gain a deeper understanding of what's really going on in the business use of open source.

And who better to begin this series than the UK's Mr Open Source, Mark Taylor? He cut his hacker teeth on a 'Kim-1', which had a 6502 processor with 1k of memory and had to be programmed in machine code from a hexadecimal keypad, before later moving on to work with grown-up code like Samba, OpenLDAP and Squid.

Prior to founding the open source consultancy, support and training company Sirius in 1998, he was the technical director of an IT Management training company. He is best known today as President of the Open Source Consortium (OSC) - and scourge of the BBC. For more about both, insight into where enterprise open source stands today, and what remains to be done – read on.

GM: Could you say a little about the background to the Open Source Consortium – when and why it was founded, what its aims are, and who are some of its members?

MT: The OSC is the trade body for Free Software companies in the UK and was publicly launched in November 2004.

The idea for the OSC came out of some advisory work I was doing at the time with Socitm. Socitm are the professional association for ICT managers working in and for the public sector. The chair of their newly formed 'Open Source' group claimed that the reason the UK Public Sector was way behind the rest of Europe, and way behind the UK Private Sector in their uptake of Free Software was that:

1) They didn't know where to find companies that specialise in Free Software.

2) Even if they did, those companies were individually very small, and Public Sector companies couldn't take the risk of doing business with them. He further claimed that if all the UK companies could be brought together as a trade body, these two problems would be solved at one stroke, and Public Sector bodies across the UK would start using Free Software.

So we kept *our* side of the deal...

The aims of the OSC are simple, and related to our status as the Free Software Trade Association:

1) Represent the interests of the emerging *Industry* around Free Software.

2) Grow the Free Software *market* in the UK and Europe.

It is very clear that there are excellent organisations representing the *community* around Free Software and Open Source, the FSF and OSI being just two examples. The OSC seeks to represent the *industry* perspective, and hence concentrate on business, economic and political issues.

You could say:

  • The community position is "Free, as in 'speech'".
  • The monopolist position is "Free, as in 'worthless'".
  • The OSC position is "Free, as in 'markets'".

Our membership ranges from locally-focused micro businesses to globally recognised players, from specialist providers in Free Software niches to service companies covering the entire enterprise stack. We have companies in every part of the UK, and companies that cover all of it. Companies with European presence, and even some with global presence. We also have associate and individual membership for people who wish to support our campaigning activities. A complete list of OSC members can be found at www.opensourceconsortium.org

GM: How has the UK/European enterprise open source scene changed over the last few years?

MT: It has changed, and is still changing, dramatically. I'll just pick out a few of the most visible and dramatic trends, starting with the 'demand' side.

Free Software is now serious enterprise business. Continental Europe is popularly considered to be ahead, but even in the UK we are seeing household name 'magic circle' law firms, banks and insurance companies, high-street chains and so on moving parts of their infrastructure over. In recent years we've seen companies taking it a step further and going all the way, Specsavers being the latest, and largest, to move to the 'Open Source, Open Standards' *only* model.

Government and Political acceptance. The European Commission has been increasingly flagging it's view that 'Open Source' represents a significant opportunity for Europe, in terms of building an indigenous technology *industry*, in terms of closing the R&D gap between Europe and the US, and in terms of massive competitive benefit to the European Public and Private sectors.

Whilst the UK Central Government does not appear to have woken up to the opportunity, we now have the position in the UK that the Conservatives, Liberal Democrats and the Greens all have 'Open Source' policies and support up to the Leader/Shadow Chancellor level. If the current government is not pro-Free Software, the next one most likely will be.

Technology purchasers are realising the fact that the anti-Free Software messages they have been hearing are not true, and have been peddled to them by providers who, frankly, didn't know what they were talking about at best, and at worst were actively protecting their own 'business model'.

Moving to the supply side:

The rate of development of Free Software is astonishing. The 'basic infrastructure' story has been strong for many years. Recently this development has raced up the application stack to the point that it is now possible to run a business end-to-end on Free Software. Not just infrastructure and web services, but document management, ERP, CRM, databases and so on, and even the desktop.

The industry, or, for want of a better word, the ecosystem around Free Software has sprung up to the point that every aspect of the 'software stack' can now be commercially supported. The supplier landscape is rich with companies that can handle a part, or even the whole, of any deployed combination of Free and Proprietary software within an enterprise.

There are a range of business models around Free Software, right from the fully proprietary based on an underlying 'open source' core, to the fully service-orientated with complete fidelity to the Free Software philosophy. Mixed proprietary/open models have been adopted even by the giants of the proprietary software generation.

GM: What do you see as the most exciting developments in free software currently?

MT: The emergence of the complete enterprise stack, combined with awareness of the rest of the stack from individual components. By this I mean that the modular integration historically boasted by the proprietary providers is now seen in the Free Software world.

We can take it for granted that Samba plays nicely with OpenLDAP, plays nicely with Apache, plays nicely with Alfresco, plays nicely with KDE, and so on. Not only this, but Free Software goes out of its way to fit in with proprietary infrastructures in a way that simply doesn't happen in a world driven by warring 'not-invented-here' proprietary companies seeking to permanently lock-in their customers to maximise their own profit.

On the desktop, the emergence of KDE4 has brought a Free Software desktop that is at least as good as MacOSX, and leaves Vista trailing a poor fourth (just behind XP).

In parallel with this, we are seeing the emerging industry working hard to fill in all the areas that, historically, purely community-driven projects have had the hardest time with. Things that are important to paying customers, things like clear and complete documentation, easy to use 'management' interfaces, recognisable support structures with SLAs, and all the things that give confidence to end users of software to invest in it for the enterprise.

GM: What are the main obstacles to the wider use of free software by companies in the UK and Europe today?

MT: We are at the point now where the main obstacles are almost entirely perceptual and psychological. For many years the market has been receiving some fairly negative propaganda from players who cannot be described as entirely disinterested. From 'communists' to 'cancer' to 'anti-American' to 'amateur hippy geeks' the negative imagery and smears have been laid on thick in a way that would be unthinkable towards human beings in most other walks of life.

Whilst almost all informed industry observers have seen through the self-interest and propaganda, there are still many who do not yet realise that Free Software is here to stay, and is the key to success of a vast and growing proportion of enterprises around the world. Sadly, this is most notable in the UK Public Sector, far too many of whom do not appear to realise that Free Software is now the textbook way to build a large, potent, service-based enterprise in the shortest time and the most cost-effective way. There are notable exceptions, and some very fine large-scale implementations of Free Software in a growing number of Public Sector organisations, but broadly speaking it is true.

In terms of real structural obstacles, again UK Government policy is a sad barrier to the wider use of Free Software. Whilst many of the largest businesses in the UK are quietly and happily adopting it all over, and working with OSC members, the Public Sector is actively discouraged by bureaucracy and poor policy, Becta's procurement list being a prime example.

GM: What do you think the various players – open source companies, users, coders, governments – can do to overcome these obstacles?

MT: Open Source companies need to work harder on getting their messages out, putting them in the plainest of plain English, and in speaking the same language as their customers.

Users can help by simply being willing to speak up about their usage. Nobody likes to feel they are out on a limb all on their own, but that situation hasn't been true for *years*. The reality is that Free Software is used all over the place, far and wide. It's time to speak up and let that be known. Nobody ever got fired for buying Free Software!

Coders - just keep on doing what you've been doing.

Governments - please join us in the 21st century. If you don't, you'll find us electing a new government that will, and you'll find you are spending *billions* on IT systems that smart companies and enterprises are migrating *away* from.

In fact, the biggest responsibility is on the companies, the coders are doing great work as they have been from the very start, the users will use it if we explain it as it deserves to be explained, and the governments will catch up with everyone else eventually.

GM: Recently, you've played a key role in getting the BBC to agree to supporting GNU/Linux with its new iPlayer: why did you decide to get involved with what seems like a fairly peripheral area? What's the current situation, and how do you think it will all end?

The BBC campaign came about for multiple reasons, including the simple fact that a large proportion of the obvious early adopters of iPlayer are GNU/Linux and MacOSX users!. Let's look at the really big picture though.

The premise is that we do not currently have a free market in software. The OSC accepts unequivocally the European Commission position that an indigenous IT industry for Europe is highly desirable, and a net win for Europe and the rest of the world. Part of the picture is levelling the currently skewed market. A vital part of European competition law is around 'illegal state aid'.

There are forms of 'state aid' which are not illegal, and are in fact socially desirable. In instances where the market fails to produce socially desirable outcomes it is entirely legitimate for the state to intervene with financial incentives. There are also instances where the state can promote a particular supplier, often a national 'champion', to the detriment of a market as a whole and with the result of discouraging alternative suppliers to the financial gain of one supplier and the financial loss of everyone else, often leading to a monopoly. This is illegal under European law.

In our view there are many instances where the exclusive favouring by the UK Government of one particular technology provider may be characterised as 'illegal state aid'. Ordinarily, this would be detrimental to the market as a whole, but if it were to coincide with an already established abusive monopolist the position would be incredibly harmful to the free development of a market. In short, the iPlayer is a potential case for this phenomena, and if not corrected could lead to the total skew of the market in favour of a single proprietary technology, backed by the state, and dictating a single-platform technology choice in multiple areas.

The future gets even worse. Whilst purchasers of portable media players, consumer electronics devices and latest generation phones are most likely to purchase one with embedded GNU/Linux or MacOSX at the moment, if watching BBC content was important to them in the future, their choice would be constrained entirely to those with embedded Windows. Good for extending the monopoly into entirely new devices, but bad for the market and for everyone else. As it turns out, the BBC's strong Free Software heritage and culture may actually come to the rescue of the iPlayer, but OSC has no doubt that there are plenty more cases of 'illegal state aid' to pursue in the UK Government scene...

This work is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-Non Commercial-No Derivative Works 2.0 UK: England & Wales Licence. Please link back to the original post.

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