The open source countdown has begun

After what has seemed like numerous false starts, it appears that the government is finally serious about introducing open standards and open source software into the public sector. Reconnix CTO Steve Nice writes

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'By freeing themselves from the shackles of proprietary IT systems, companies can gain a further competitive edge'

 

On Wednesday, Cabinet Office minister, Francis Maude, outlined his plans to start shifting away from using proprietary Microsoft productivity applications in order to adopt more open source technologies.

A move that could potentially save the public sector millions of pounds annually, it would also see him, and government, break away from what he refers to as the vendor ‘oligopoly’ currently dominating IT.

Since 2010, over £200 million has been spent by the government on Microsoft Office alone. This is a startling figure when one considers that there are open source software packages capable of delivering almost exactly the same functionality for little to no cost.  

In a time of austerity, when we have all been asked to shoulder some of the burden, it then almost seems absurd that the government would incur such an expense when a viable alternative would be available for practically zero cost.  

The arguments for Microsoft Office and against the open source alternatives, LibreOffice and OpenOffice, are well versed. Microsoft Office is, after all, a very slick piece of software, with a huge range of features.

But, the truth of the matter is that only a very small fraction of users utilise more than the most basic of these features. The advanced features are the reserve of a handful of power users, who need them for a very specific set of applications – many of which are now also offered by the open source packages.

In the past, it has been argued that LibreOffice and OpenOffice are ‘buggy’ and that they did not offer a comparable user experience to its Microsoft Office competitor. Today, that is not the case. The open source options available in the market today can meet user needs just as well as proprietary software – if not better.

>See also: Open-source cancer diagnosis

Our government would not be the first to realise the benefits that open source software and open standards has to offer. Germany's government coalition of CDU, CSU and SPD encourages the use of open source software in public administrations. They describe open source as an alternative to 'closed digital ecosystems' and as a group has committed themselves to open source at a European level.

But change is not always easy. And as with any change initiative there is sure to be some level of resistance. This will likely not be from the government departments themselves, but from their end users and the IT departments that would have to implement and support the software – as it would be in the private sector if an organisation were to switch to open source.

The adoption of open source solutions at government level will also have a likely knock-on effect to the private sector. As more and more users become familiar with these systems, they can become more accepted and benefit the economy as a whole.

Cutting IT bills is an opportunity for everyone, and can help businesses become more agile and competitive – savings in IT can be added straight to a company’s bottom line or reinvested in other areas such as staff, training or developing new products or services.

IT leaders within enterprise need to follow this bold step from the government. What has begun with adoption of open file formats can develop into a more widespread adoption of other open source solutions such as Linux or even in the cloud.

By freeing themselves from the shackles of proprietary IT systems, companies can gain a further competitive edge, and benefit the nation’s economy as a whole.