Is the government finally going to walk the walk with open source?

By Sooraj Shah
11 Feb 2014 View Comments

"The software we use in government is still supplied by just a few large companies. A tiny oligopoly dominates the marketplace," was the key line in cabinet office minister Francis Maude's speech at digital government conference Sprint 14, before he suggested that it was finally time for the market to move away from this position to enable taxpayers to save millions of pounds a year.

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Similar statements have been made before.

"This isn't the first time the issue of technology lock-in and open-source alternatives were brought up; it has happened a number of times before and has been a generally debated point among government IT circles for many years," Ovum analyst Nishant Shah explained.

Maude added that the government had "set out the document formats that we propose should be adopted across government".

The idea is that with more choice of software, government employees will be able to access the information they need, and can complete work without having to rely on a specific application.

This led to some suggesting that the government could dump Microsoft Office – which has reportedly cost the government £200m since 2010 – but a Cabinet Office spokesperson clarified that "it was all about choosing standards that mean we aren't locked in. Standards that give the freedom to choose the products that best meet our needs – both now and in the future – be they products from Microsoft, Google or any other software supplier."

Maude had said that it was not about "banning any one product or imposing an arbitrary list of standards", but the move may pave the way to slowly phase out one of the pieces of software the government relies upon the most.

Indeed, Rafael Laguna, chief executive of office software firm Open-Xchange believes that "organisations [until now] have felt that Microsoft Office is the only option available to them".

But Gartner research director Neville Cannon believes the government has been sold on the idea of open source by evangelists, and that there remain concerns about open source's maturity and interoperability.

"The prospect of saving several hundred millions of pounds on procurement costs is a fraction of what the government spends overall on operational costs for things like staff time and effort," he said. "There are a number of issues including how you train the workforce you've got across the various government agencies, and that open source does not necessarily come with the level of support packages to comply with security requirement on the cheap."

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