Shadow chancellor slams government over open source

Shadow chancellor slams government over open source

Summary: Conservative MP George Osborne has called for widespread adoption across industry, while pointing out the software failings of central government


George Osborne, the shadow chancellor, has criticised the government over its apparent lack of support for open-source software.

He said that many of the world's multinational corporations are developing open-source software strategies, and that "far-sighted governments are also taking advantage of this trend".

But Osborne said the case in the UK was very different. Speaking on Thursday at a conference organised by the Royal Society for the Arts, he said: "In recent months, Conservative MPs have put down parliamentary questions that reveal most central government departments make use of no open-source software whatsoever".

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The problem is "the cultural change has not taken place in government", and, within government, the balance is weighted against open source. "There isn't a level playing field for open-source software," he said.

"Too many companies are frozen out of government IT contracts, stifling competition and driving up costs," he said. "Not a single open-source company is included in Catalyst, the government's list of approved IT suppliers." One of the problems is that "a government IT system is incompatible with other types of software, which stifles competition and hampers innovation".

He condemned the "litany of IT projects that have collapsed or spiralled over budget", and said: "It's clear that this has meant billions of pounds wasted and public service reform being hampered".

The shadow chancellor went on to applaud "software that's developed collectively", and he criticised the government's strategy of sticking to the major vendors. The result is that "unlike traditional proprietary software, users can access the source code, making it possible for them to tailor the software to their needs and make constant iterative improvements".

Osborne also set out the Conservative party's strategy on technology, pointing to "three pillars" on which the Conservatives intend to build — equality of information, social networking and open source. He said that they would enable a future government to "recast the political settlement for the digital age".

Osborne was keen to explain that he saw open source not just as software, but as a concept of collaboration. And he was careful to avoid implying that to support open source was to condemn proprietary vendors such as Microsoft. "Adopting open-source software in government departments does not necessarily mean having to stop using Microsoft products," he said.

In response to Osborne's speech, a Microsoft spokesperson said: "The shadow chancellor raises an important issue and we look forward to engaging with him. All software products carry benefits and costs. Governments should select software based on its merits and not based simply on its development and licensing model, as they risk making incorrect choices." 

The spokesperson continued: "Procurement should be based on what best meets their needs. Functionality, performance, security, value and the cost of ownership of software should be the priority, not categorical preferences for open-source software, commercial software, free software or any other software development model."

One of the latest governments to contemplate open source is Cuba. Cuban interest has excited free-source advocate Richard Stallman, who has spent considerable time supporting local efforts.

Within the UK, Osborne's thoughts are at least partly shared by John Pugh, a Liberal Democrat MP who is campaigning for greater use of open-source software in schools. Pugh brought an early day motion on the subject in November, which has subsequently won the support of 129 other MPs.  

Topics: Apps, Software Development


Colin Barker is based in London and is Senior Reporter for ZDNet. He has been writing about the IT business for some 30-plus years. He still enjoys it.

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  • Open source

    "unlike traditional proprietary software, users can access the source code, making it possible for them to tailor the software to their needs"
    This is only one of the strengths of OSS, making it a viable and
    more attractive package than proprietary software. It can be customized to a particular company or government agency and still be compatible with other factions. Plus it is more stable and secure.
  • Typical MP's talking about something they do not know about

    Open source will lead to in the next 5 to 10 years to job losses on top of the jobs we are already losing to to India and China.

    There is already a reduction in the number people applying for computer degrees in Univeristies. Who wants to do a degree in computer science if you cannot get a job at the end or nobody is willing to pay you due to the increased use of free software.

    As more companies and goverments push for open software it will eventually destroy the computer industry. Not only that countries such as India and China are able to accelerate their use of technology to become more competitive without the costs of paying for software.

    I dont suppose Tesco is going to give me free food, BP/Shell free fuel or the goverment is going to allow me not to pay taxes.
  • Open source bad for business?

    Some interesting thoughts there from PJC but not sure I follow your logic entirely
    Andrew Donoghue
  • Microsoft Koolaid

    PJC has obviously reading the same Microsoft FUD that I saw the other day. Open Source is going to bring down the commercial world, put all IT wonks out of business and shoot your dog. Well, they would say that, now wouldn't they.

    The only difference between commercial Open Source companies and commercial closed source companies is that the code the paid developers develop is made into common property, so doesn't need writing again. A recent study said that virtually all the code added to (for example) the Linux Kernel for the last few versions was written by paid developers.

    The standard choices for commercial institutions wishing to use Linux are for the most part the so called "Enterprise" versions; ie paid for. You are paying for support and extensive testing.

    The dip in IT course entrants was, I suspect, at least in part down the fact that kids could no longer geek out in their bedrooms and build things like we used to back in the day. We wrote or downloaded our code for free. We had to. We simply couldn't stump up the amount the commercial stuff cost. So I would suspect that as Open Source becomes more popular again, more and more neophyte geeks will be playing with it like they used to, leading to an increase in the popularity of University IT courses.

    So, PJC, don't believe all that you read; particularly if it is inpired by Bill's PR company ... it just miiiiiight be a little biased.
    Andrew Meredith
  • Agreed

    If you think you're going to lose your job because you have a very narrow skillset then retrain. It's no different from any other profession.

    Hardware has commodised. Software is commodising.

    In five to ten years time businesses will be more used to paying for IT services and support for free/OS software, and less willing to pay through the nose for IT products that try to own you.

    And frankly who can blame them.
  • I suppose...

    I suppose textile, manufacturing, ship building businesses etc. thought they had a future, where are they today?

    The reason IBM among others are supporting open-source is that they want to reduce their own costs and are really more interested in selling hardware and services.

    I do not support free software it is anti-competitive and will destroy jobs. Red Hat and others have made a fortune with free labour.

    If IBM started giving hardware away for free HP, DELL and Sun would certainly complain as they could not compete.

    If you think that there will be enough open source projects to sustain the software industry then you are living on a different planet.

    I do not mind the idea of sharing ideas but I also want to share the profit!
  • The genie is out of the bottle

    Andrew Donoghue
  • From your comments...

    You must make your living off the back of open source or do you give your services for free. Well jump on the band wagon while you can.

    Sorry dont have the time to read everything that comes out of Microsoft. Not everything that comes out of Micrsoft is bad, they do have some good products. Unfortunately they damaged their reputation in how they did business in the past.

    Same thing happend to AT&T and IBM. I remember when IBM came close to being broken up, big-bad-IBM. Now that they are supporting open source, big-good-IBM.

    Time will ony tell who is right and who is wrong, but by then will it be too late?
  • Apples and Oranges

    The UK textile, manufacturing & ship building businesses fell because they could no longer treat their employees as cheap, disposable slaves. The factories just moved to other places where they could. Simplified perhaps, but not too far out.

    If you are holding out for the survival of the parts of the IT industry who make tankerloads of profit from recycling the same old code, locking their customers into an endless cycle of upgrades, giving bad service and generally messing their customers about then I'm afraid you are quite right in that they are doomed. However, this isn't down to Open Source. This is just down to basic capitalist priciples in operation.

    Examine a closed source business. The money they make is generally not from the actual business of writing, testing and releasing software. It is more often from consultancy, support and training. The same things that Open Source companies make their money from. The big difference is that they cannot lock their customers in and so cannot strong arm their customers into paying more than the service they provide is worth.

    As for Open Source being anti-competitive, this one is straight out of the Microsoft playbook and is the exact oposite of the truth. You can only buy Microsoft Word or Microsoft XP from one manufacturer. If anyone else gets too close they get sued into a hole in the ground. Now THAT is anti-competitive and what's more the US and EU justice systems seem to agree.

    A few years ago, a Red Hat Linux release was being widely panned by their customers, who seemed to feel that RH were being less than helpful. A group of French software developers got together, lifted the entire RH Linux source tree, fixed it and released it as a new product. It was very successful and entirely legal. This product was called Mandrake and launched a new company. Now THAT's pure competition.
    Andrew Meredith
  • Ah...

    I thought being a journalist you would have a 'balanced' mind or are you just being a journalist and stirring debate.

    But of course you get paid for what ever you say.

    Of cousre that could all change in time if people decide to start a free web site for articles and the editing of those articles.

    Now theres an idea...
  • From your reply...

    I would say your are certaintly not a capitalist or dont you get fed.

    Also try getting a hold of Red Hat Linux if you can. The only 'free' product available is Fedora which is not suitable for a production environment.

    Linux is years behind the likes of AIX, HPUX and Solaris.

    By the way Mandrake went bust at least once.
  • Cliff top driving

    From your comments I assume you make your money from proprietary software and are feeling a bit nervous of all the buzz around Open Source.

    .. and yes indeed I do charge for my services. The "Free" in Free software is as in "Free Speach" as well as "Free Beer", but the only thing that's free (beer) is the software source code itself. You quite often even have to pay for the compiled binaries. Support, training etc is of course to be paid for.

    I run a small company that deals with other small companies and helps them run their own computer systems using mainly Free/Open Source Software and have been doing so for 7 years or so. So I guess I have been riding this "Bandwaggon" for a while now.

    You don't have to read the actual stuff that Microsoft produces, it gets reproduced by so many "Independant" journalists you don't have to.

    As for IBM being bad or good, they are neither. Microsoft is also neither good nor bad. They are both just capitalist organisations doing what they do. Microsoft did famously go a bit beyond par and got their corporate knuckles rapped for it. In fact they have done this quite a few times now, but then you don't call a wolf bad for eating your sheep. You might even hunt it down and shoot it, but it's just a wolf being a wolf and taking advantage of the situation.
    Andrew Meredith
  • Debate is healthy

    Stirring is one way to look at it - we prefer seeding the debate at ZDNet UK ;-)

    A site made up of free contributions is an interesting idea...

    But then again if you think about it - you're actually providing open source content right now. No one is paying you to exchange ideas with the ZDNet UK community but you seem to enjoy it - or at least feel driven to do it.

    But you are right in that we depend on advertising to make the site run - but we don't charge a subscription fee or charge for the content itself. And that kind of advertising model is one that has done very well for Google and one that even Microsoft is considering for its hosted applications. It's not about rejecting capitalism - it's about the adopting the right business model.
    Andrew Donoghue
  • Fed up ..

    See other thread for rebuttal of simplistic arguments based around the misuse of the word "Free" by those who haven't been concentrating.

    I am confused about your comments viz Red Hat. In one breath you are slating them as not capitalistic enough because they deal in free software and then slating them because they want paying for their services. You really haven't thought this one out that well have you.

    I also find it interesting that you know Linux, Solaris, HPUX and AIX well enough to be able to make judgements about their relative merits. Inaccurate judgements though they may be, if the fact that they are all losing market share hand over fist to Linux is anything to go by.

    Mandrake did indeed go bust a few times; after they saw an opportunity and made some money, they then failed to compete. IBM made the biggest yearly loss in corporate history a few years back, before they slimmed down, took another look at the industry and started taking Open Source a bit more seriously. Maybe you should point them towards the error of their ways.
    Andrew Meredith
  • Interesting...

    OK you get paid from advertising, so if the 'open source' editoral web site 'ITFree' did not charge for advertising no one would get paid.

    So you are happy for the open source principle in the IT world, but would you like it for the publishing world, I think not.
  • Dont be fed up...

    debate is healthly a jounalist told me!?

    If you look at IBM's P&L most of their profits come from services and harware, they lose money on open source.

    Keep smiling (your making money from other peoples efforts).
  • Now you're just being perverse

    See title ...
    Andrew Meredith
  • Kop out...

    see title :)
  • It was a pun ..

    .. but I guess that one fell flat.

    Your comment about IBM losing money on Open Source but making it back on services and hardware is really just a restatement of my explanation of how companies are adapting to the new environment. It's only companies who have engineered a monopoly that can make money directly off software development. It is almost universally the price you pay to get in on the act. "You want consultancy? Who better than the people who wrote it .. us !"

    Everyone makes money from other people's efforts. Nothing is created in a vacuum any more.

    You really need to get past this hangup over the word "Free" you know. Maybe you should try affermations ;)
    Andrew Meredith
  • How would you react...

    if IBM/HP decides to offer to all SME's consultancy for no charge (I have not used free, you seem to have a hang up on it :) if they take out 3 years support (believe it is being considered)?

    Oops there goes your ability to make money. Retrain become an accountant. No dont do that, that work is starting to be outsourced.

    We could go on and on about this. I do predict that our industry as we know it will disappear not immediately but over the next 5 to 10 years. Only time will prove me right or wrong. If I am right and those people who stuck their head in the sand saying open source is a good thing will also be out work.

    Time to move on...