Schools, SMEs, the Cabinet Office and open source

Open Source applications will soon be in schools provided by SMEs...but maybe not in the way you thought. Sadly I am now engaged in de-commissioning what was in a former life my first open source deployment into a school. Their LTSP student...

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Open Source applications will soon be in schools provided by SMEs...but maybe not in the way you thought.

Sadly I am now engaged in de-commissioning what was in a former life my first open source deployment into a school. Their LTSP student network fired up over six years ago now and has run on 20 watt desktops without trouble or indeed any need for an onsite technician.

Recently I suggested that Microsoft were preparing to give away their software to schools to upgrade the ancient stock and encourage a new generation to love MS. Sure enough with a new Head Teacher this is almost exactly what has happened.

I cannot release the figures negotiated by the school but for guidance take the ‘BBC Today’ programme of March 2nd. Among the snippets were some figures on UK Gov IT spending. One of which was a £82 million NHS Microsoft contract (Licences?) which now had dropped to £8.5 million...I had to ‘Listen Again’ to check I heard right.

‘Come again..a 90% drop in MS costs suddenly possible?’...sure is folks.

‘So what?’ you may say LTSP is free and proven to work in the school, ‘why change?’.

The answer was straightforward, ‘it costs us £3,5k (not my contract I might add) a year for the support contract and no-one will come onsite and no-one round here does Linux ... and we can get support for Windows 7 more cheaply ... and there has not been any development in our system in the past five years’.

Fair enough, I had no answer to any of those points. I took some solace though in that no-one there was buying more than a W7 system with Office licences. They were spending the remaining funds on faster broadband, campus wireless and were looking to the web for educational apps and info in general. Tablets gleamed in the Head’s eyes.

Their shift to revert to MS but put the web centre stage resonated with recent Cabinet Office guff about SMEs, Open Source and development methodologies (are you agile or have you fallen over the waterfall?) In the CO’s vision for IT, SMEs Open Standards and ‘agility’ are writ large.

So forgive me for the following speculations. I have re-read: Bill Mc Cluggage’s Cabinet Office stuff about SMEs and Open Standards, Joe Harley’s comments on big IT and Lord Adonis’ IT agile ideas from the Indep. Institute for Gov so I think for this pain alone I am allowed a punt or two.

These are two problems that apply to schools and the public sector generally. One is, as for my school above, the SME problem, the other is the Desktop:

The SME problem

It is hard to believe that even a government set on reducing the size of the state would actually piecemeal contract out its public ICT to SMEs (who inevitably will use different platforms and technologies) and then trust to Open Standards to provide any kind of interoperability! Nice idea but Open Standards are not there yet.

The question then reduces to how to resolve the (genuine) intention to use SMEs with the monolithic interoperability that once came with MS-World. The answer I believe is G-Cloud. Reading McCluggage carefully I think they (Cabinet Office) see SMEs as service and application developers but within a standard Cloud framework.

This means that in education for example, ‘learning apps’ can find a Government supervised web home, ditto administration functions. Moreover this model will be able to move through the Public Sector providing applications for everyone ... hooray.

In G-topia, Open Source apps and services will sit alongside proprietary versions just like the Android Market Place. I think this has always been the plan for the past six years and it is simply being re-packaged. And oh yes, G-Cloud will be of a sky blue hue, the deal done in return for solving another problem:

The Desktop Problem

Win 7 and Office 2010 for free(ish) solves a massive problem for legacy systems in that it provides the incentive (especially important in schools) to undergo the real pain of upgrading from XP. I think this is essential to kick start the stalled upgrade cycle and if the NHS can get a 90% discount then why not Education?

Summary

Schools and the Public sector will move to W7 and Office 2010 largely at Microsoft’s expense. In parallel a public and private G-Cloud environment will provide an Open Standards compliant framework into which SMEs in general and Open Source providers in particular can ply their trade.

So in the end schools will be using free, open source apps to an unprecedented level within this environment because the barriers to entry have simple been removed ... but not quite in the way we first thought.

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