Open source awareness growing in Scotland

A Green MSP claims that awareness of non-proprietary software is growing, but warns that Microsoft would be quick to respond to any political move away from Windows

A member of the Scottish Parliament claimed on Thursday that there is growing support for open source software in the Scottish public sector, but warned that awareness in the Scottish Executive and Parliament is still limited.

Patrick Harvie, a Green MSP for Glasgow said: "Within the parliament, few people are aware of the issue, but there are an increasing number of civil servants who recognise there's an opportunity to save money for the public sector by using open source instead of licensed software."

The Scottish Executive, the devolved government for Scotland, is unlikely to introduce any policies around open source software in the near future as it tends to conform with the UK government's position, according to Harvie. Also, any moves towards open source are likely to be strongly opposed by Microsoft, which Harvie claims has been quick to react to any political activity around open source in the past.

"Clearly [Microsoft is] monitoring what's going on and anything that threatens their contract with the [Scottish] Executive or local authorities they respond to," said Harvie.

In September 2003, Harvie put some written questions to the Scottish Executive and Parliament to find out their position on open source software and how much they have spent on Microsoft software. Within a short period of time, Harvie was invited to dinner by a Microsoft representative. He declined the invite, but agreed to a meeting at his parliamentary office and was surprised at the Microsoft delegate's positive attitude towards open source.

"There was a huge difference between what he was saying and the way Microsoft behaves towards open source," said Harvie.

The speed with which Microsoft responded to his parliamentary question demonstrates how they are politically handling the threat that open source software poses to their business model, said Harvie.

"It was interesting that they are clearly monitoring parliamentary activity, even in a devolved parliament that has no control over the industry. They obviously want to chase up anybody that questions the position of Microsoft in the public sector," he said.

Microsoft has been quick to respond to other government agencies that have threatened to move to open source. Newham Council considered migrating from Microsoft to Linux on the desktop, but eventually stuck with Windows, which led to claims that Microsoft made massive concessions to avoid the council switching to open source. Similarly, when the City of Munich was considering a migration to Linux, Microsoft's chief executive Steve Ballmer interrupted a ski holiday in Switzerland to pay a personal visit to Munich's mayor to dissuade him from making the move, although on that occasion the software giant was unsuccessful.

In response to Harvie's questions in 2003, the Scottish Parliament said it has spent £449,000 on Microsoft software licences, which includes licences for desktop, server, database and email software. The Scottish Executive said it has licensing agreements with Microsoft which "provide significant levels of discount on published list prices for Microsoft software." The Executive said it had spent a total of £1.4m on Microsoft software between 2002 and 2003.

Harvie said he would "jump at the opportunity" to introduce open source software to the Executive in the future.

Harvie has also spoken about his views on open source software in an interview with Scottish open source software company Logicalware. An audio file of the interview is available on the company's blog.