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Two Jags and a Penguin

The last day of The Great Linux Debate and with it, the news that Open Source had established its first real beachhead in Government. “It might not be the beginning of the end for Microsoft but it is the end of the beginning”, someone said, possibly Winston Churchill but the anticipation of a Death Star spiralling slowly out of orbit, was certainly there to be seen.

But wait a minute, let me look back to my notes from a EURIM meeting at IBM South Bank, less than twelve months ago. Here we are. “Linux is an unstoppable disruptive technology that IBM needs to make money from” and “How do we separate Open Source from Open Standards” and from Government, “We need to avoid proprietary lock-in and for that we need an interoperable IT structure that also solves the single supplier dilemma”.

There is more of course in my little black Moleskine notebook but it strikes me that in ten months, we actually haven’t come all that far. In fact, this rather sounds like the trials that were discussed around the table at the same meeting, in the face of mounting pressure from the Open Source lobby for Government to be seen to be acknowledging the existence of an Open Source alternative to its software supply dilemma. So now, we have The Office of Government Commerce (OGC), responsible under Peter Gershon for all Whitehall’s IT procurement, announcing that it will conduct nine trials of software packages, which include both Microsoft and Linux solutions, across Government departments chosen for the task.

In order to demonstrate the necessary impartiality, the OGC said it would “measure the effectiveness and cost-benefits of IT systems based on open source products.” IBM, one of the leading advocates of open source software, will carry out the tests.

This is perhaps rather like asking Microsoft to run a credible comparison between Linux and Windows or New Labour to measure itself against the Conservatives or vice versa. The result is likely to be the one that everyone expects and I can tell you now that Open Source will emerge from the trials with flying colours and Microsoft is surprisingly sanguine about the whole thing. After all, “You can’t beat city hall”, it still has £100 million pounds of business passing through the OGC, and although the trials may represent the very thin edge of the wedge, we won’t see members of the Microsoft government sales team selling copies of The Big Issue on Westminster bridge just yet.

Is this good news for the taxpayer? Possibly. It is evidence of Government jump-starting its own Open Source initiative to bring it in line with the interests of other European states. The OGC is looking for value-for-money procurement and if an Open Source solution can deliver the goods at a fraction of the cost of another option, then perhaps, we will not see Government spending £96 million on the NHS email system again, when the original specification suggested £3 million.

Although several local authorities are involved in the trial, I will reach for my little black book again, as I’ve been writing case studies in the local government sector recently. Here’s a quote from one of the UK’s largest city authorities which illustrates the enthusiasm I’m seeing for the adoption of Open Source solutions. “We have resisted the community software argument and will continue to do so, because you cannot run global organizations on a spindle of credibility, you need a strong, robust strategy and a reliable and consistent point of contact”.

The current initiative can best be seen as a 'policy enabler,' in that a UK government policy on Open Source (OSS) already exists, and has been public since July of last year. This states that the government will "consider OSS solutions alongside proprietary ones in IT procurements and award contracts on a value for money basis, seeking to avoid lock-in to proprietary IT products and services." As yet this theoretical level playing field does not seem to have had a massively visible effect on government use of open source, so by running a series of test deployments the OGC is probably trying to kick-start the policy.

This may make me sound anti the whole idea and I’m not. I’m simply presenting what I’m seeing as the facts behind a certain amount of ‘Blue’ spin. Central Government needs to avoid lock-in and it’s looking for better value for money. Windows NT is being phased-out rapidly in the public sector and now is as good a time as any to decide whether the future is one that is wedded to Microsoft on the one side or EDS and IBM on the other. If this creates a level playing field, stimulates competition and Government stops squandering money on software and produces more reliable and secure systems then we should all march on Whitehall and cheer. It is however a little premature to celebrate the real arrival of Open Source in Government unless of course it has arrived to fill the gap left by the loss of democracy.


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