Open source software in UK missed the boat


Buying an Open Source solution is becoming much the same as buying a proprietary one...which is a good thing.

Well, we have a new Government, spending cuts have begun and speculation about how schools will be affected is well under way. Naturally the likes of me are looking for clues as to how ICT in schools will be changed.

Last week the NAHT railed against the excessive costs of outsourced ICT, this week yet another public IT project went belly-up as a result of naïve outsourcing. This time it was to a giant French IT company who promised the Met Police 'massive savings' in their Payroll and HR systems..hah!

So is it safe to assume that the gloss is going off outsourcing?..maybe... it all depends on just how savvy are our new masters and mistresses in parliament.

A dig into the educational backgrounds of our Ministers is in order, what kind of folk might they be?

In brief having done some looking up: most of them are 50 something Grammar/High school educated with only one from comprehensive school, the rest went to Independent schools (some more famous than others): none seem to be what you would call 'technical'.

The new ministers in the Department for Education are Nick Gibb and Sarah Teather. They are new-gov archetypes, both were Grammar School kids...hmm what can I deduce from all this?

Well, I may be wrong, but my experience tells me all the folk above will not have the rose-tinted techno-specs that so mesmerised the previous Government. This generation of ex-Grammar school, pre-Microsoft kids grew up with computers and long ago lost 'the wow starts now' factor along with any belief that computers are in any way a universal panacea for administrators.

No, for this lot I expect a rather more pragmatic approach to IT/ICT.

Open source software.. the great breakthrough?

For the greater part of eight years, I believed that free, open source software would displace proprietary software in schools. The reasons were simple: One day schools would run out of money, FOSS was increasing in quality daily, proprietary software lock-in was becoming a much hated anachronism.

But here we are in 2010, schools are massively short of funds, there are some great FOSS offerings out there... but no sign of a breakthrough..what happened?

The reason for the lack of adoption are really quite interesting. As always nothing stays the same. The open source landscape changed, Web 2 happened, outsourcing happened.

To summarise:

1) No open source organisation or company exists which can compete with the sheer scale of the proprietary software ICT outsource companies or the scale of their projects. There is no Open Source 'Capita' nor now will there ever be.

The new Government promises to break up these large projects to allow smaller suppliers to offer services..hah! We'll see but even if it does, the above stands..smaller scale projects.

2) Free, Open Source Software or more specifically the open source software commercial market has changed radically recently in two ways:

a) The successful models are conventionally software product orientated and typically leverage an Open Source 'community' core.

They add value through polished 'Enterprise' versions. This basically means that if you use the vanilla, free, core version out of the box you'll have to do a lot yourself (or pay someone else) to get it to meet your needs.

b) If it's web-based, then once again the free version will get you started but the good stuff (the stuff you really want to add to it... will cost you). This is called the 'freemium' model. Think Joomla!

Dependency not Lock-in

Moving to OpenSource products for schools and colleges nowadays, with the above business models, means that you enter a dependency culture. This is not however a super-tight lock-in as occurred in the past with some proprietary software packages.

To explain, as an analogy, imagine that you have bought a new Audi or Skoda, you can get one at nearly cost price because the money is made on the servicing at later dates.

You don't have to go to your Audi garage, but they have all the kit and are not too expensive. You are therefore dependent but you could go elsewhere. So it is in the OSS world today. Let's call it a 'soft-lock'.

A paradox indeed.

All of the above means that software solutions for any sector; whether provided by proprietary or opensource software are converging in terms of business models and profitability.

Thus without a distinct, and I mean really distinct, unique selling point, a solution using open source software now does not look so different and this is deeply reassuring to the buyers.

This in some ways is the 'level playing field we in FOSS always hoped for'. But maybe 'equally unattractive' is not quite the equality we had in mind.


The very real doubts about outsourcing, the availability of online free seduction-apps from Google, the now understandable ('at last!' say the procurers) open source business models has changed the procurement landscape.

It means that a Government can make unromantic realistic pragmatic decisions about its use of ICT, spanning everything from the traditional proprietary bespoke software solutions to quasi open source online Cloud mashups. The difference now is that it will be harder to justify buying expensive software instead of a 'free' equivalent.

So expect a 'pick and mix' approach to ICT in schools with no-one handing over blank cheques or doing big projects. Expect also a lot of free stuff in schools. Local solutions for local needs.

It'll all be very interesting, maybe teachers will once again one day show an interest in ICT!

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