Great Britain and Open Source Software

January 2002

 

Britain remains apart from the festivities as twelve nations celebrate the arrival of the Euro this January, but on the software front the country is marching along with the rest of Europe toward the use of more Open Source software in government. In response to the June 2000 Action Plan (http://europa.eu.int/comm/information_society/eeurope/documentation/index_en.htm)

supporting the European Commission’s initiative "eEurope – An Information Society for All," the British government has been mandating open standards and specifications under its e-Government Interoperability Framework (e-GIF).

The Government has recently put forward a draft of a policy concerning Open Source (http://www.govtalk.gov.uk/rfc/rfc_document.asp?docnum=429) and emphasizing the desirability of Open Source for interoperability. The brief policy draft is based on a longer document, "Analysis of the Impact of Open Source Software" by QinetiQ ltd, dated October 2001 (http://www.govtalk.gov.uk/interoperability/egif_document.asp?docnum=430)."

Any business considering the use of Open Source software should read this report because it represents the response of a large user faced with the questions of Open Source. The emphasis is on a pragmatic approach rather than on Open Source zealotry: the report frankly admits that in some cases proprietary software may give greater value than Open Source software, and it does not agree with the argument that Open Source software is inherently more secure than proprietary software. But the report also gives a long list of benefits that Open Source in general offers large users.

So that everyone may be perfectly clear what is meant by the term, the report gives this definition: Open Source Software (OSS) is software whose source code is openly published, which is usually available at no charge, and which is often developed by voluntary efforts. For the most part this means free software available either from the Internet or packaged and tuned by an Open Source vendor.

The Future of Open Source Software

The report does not believe that Open Source is a bubble or that it is doomed to economic collapse like the dot-com companies. The authors believe that the great strength of the software is in middleware (i.e., interoperability) and that Open Source will represent a heady 50% of this category by 2005 (25% within three years), and they expect that Open Source to be "a viable option" for "massive multi-user databases" within three years. The report discounts the idea that Open Source will take over the desktop in developed nations within the next several years, but regards Open Source as the natural choice for desktops in developing countries.

Interoperability

The chief concern of the report is establishing and maintaining interoperability among the many data systems that the government now runs or will run in the future. This is the reason for seeing Open Source as most important for its middleware functions. Any large user of systems is familiar with the problem of the "data dungeons" regretted in the report, those systems whose proprietary format requires the data on them to live on separate, aging machine that do not talk to other machines.

Vendor lock-in ("vendor dependence") is the chief fear of the report, because many proprietary products are intentionally opposed to interoperability. Interoperability promotes customer independence and choice among vendors. Faced with vendors who do not want their products to communicate with other products, the customer has two remedies. One is to install middleware that will connect the disparate systems, but here the great danger is that much available middleware is proprietary, and is thus another potential source of vendor lock-in. The other choice is to choose vendors who adhere to open standards and specifications. As for internally-developed software, the report recommends that the government take care to secure the copyrights to it, and suggests that the government might sponsor Open Source software projects for those of its needs which are met only by proprietary software. It adds that the commercializing of government-funded software would be made easier by having it under Open Source licenses, and notes that the European Environmental Agency mandates that internal software be developed under a particular Open Source license (MPL 1.1) and maintained in a publicly-accessible repository.

The report is careful to say that the government's interest in Open Source is not a hunt for an alternative to Microsoft products, but it also says that the proprietary formats of Microsoft Office are a principal obstacle to any mandated consideration of Open Source for government desktops, because there is a substantial body of Microsoft documents and a large Microsoft user base outside the government that require government interoperability. Here proprietary formats are doing their job of securing vendor lock-in. The report does include a review of Open Source desktop office products with comments on their interoperability with Microsoft Office, and says the question will need revisiting in another year or so as Open Source products increase their ability to read and write Microsoft formats. The report does acknowledge that some small government bodies in Britain are already undergoing conversion of desktops to Open Source.

Security

So much has been written about the security problems of Microsoft software that there is no need to dwell on them. The report does contain the interesting information that the J.S. Wurlitzer insurance company (jswum.com) charges "a higher premium (by about 25%) for companies that use Windows NT, as they assess the risk of a payout to be greater."

National Interests

Although it is the shortest section of the report, the part dealing with "Improving the Competitiveness of UK Industry" is the most telling from the perspective of the future of Open Source and its importance in an increasingly competitive world economy.

The report admires the ability of Americans to commercialize the Open Source software originating in government and academe and recommends a similar course to the British government. Britain currently has no Open Source commercial efforts to match what is going on in America, although it has some distinguished Open Source developers (who are working for foreign firms). The key line, however, is "The rise of OSS offers the possibility that non-US players will find it easier to influence the future direction of IT infrastructure technology."

Other countries are likewise seeing Open Source as a means to increase control over their national destinies by building native software industries. Last summer the Institute for Information Industry (III), Taiwan (http://www.iii.org.tw/portal/english.htm) made public at an international Open Source conference in Taipei its vision of the future: The Taiwanese hardware industry needed not only to add software to its hardware products in order to raise the shrinking profits of the industry, but to develop a native software industry to supply those products. The III saw the best starting point for a native software industry not in proprietary software, but in Open Source.

We may be entering a very different software world. We have still to see the rise of Asian (Taiwanese, Chinese, Indian, Japanese) software industries built on Open Source, but they are very likely coming. When you consider that even the proprietary software industry is attempting to move toward service (subscription) rather than product models,* and that Open Source software is already using the service model, the addition of Asian software service nations will speed the arrival of that different world.

The report does not go deeper into the economic questions of proprietary vs. Open Source software, but does "predict that OSS will exert downward pressure on prices of infrastructure components." The reason for this lower price is simple: if today the purchase price for proprietary software contains both an R&D component and a service component, the price for subscriptions to proprietary software must still contain both these components. The price for Open Source software is frequently free, with the option of paying for ongoing service. With no R&D to amortize, the price for Open Source software must necessarily be lower.

By stepping into Open Source software the British government is positioning itself to take advantage of these lower costs. The insertion of Asian software workers into the equation will lead to even lower costs: as you are reading this, U.S. proprietary software companies are already setting up call centers in India for telephone and other support of their products, taking advantage of the supply of bright English-speaking graduates. Open Source will simply accelerate this journey, but will change the destination.

*The report, looking at this growing world of subscriptions and service contracts, notes that "IBM is a very interesting example, as they appear to now view software as a cost, rather than an income source. Instead their income comes predominantly from hardware and services."

 

Copyright © 2002 by Donald K. Rosenberg, Stromian Technologies (http://www.stromian.com)

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