State-sponsored research can sometimes seem remote. As the mammoth Cassini-Huygens space probe slips past the enigmatic worlds of the Saturn system, the data it sends back makes excellent desktop wallpaper but – for most of us – nothing much more useful than that.
Yet everyone, from planetary scientists to pet shop owners, can benefit from another piece of government research. The Office of Government Commerce has taken a long, cool look at open source software in action and reported back that it is ready for mainstream acceptance. If you are wondering whether to run your own trials or trying to make sense of the conflicting claims of the open-source and proprietary camps, the message is clear: this stuff works, and it can save you money. That is information we all need to know.
The report has many obvious implications for commercial IT, but that is by way of a side effect – a spin-off, much like the silicon transistor came about in the wake of American military requirements. The OGC concentrates on public sector requirements – a very necessary job, to be sure – but there is a good case to be made for a wider remit. While consumers can draw on innumerable sources of comparative advice when deciding what to buy, it is much harder for large organisations to find, filter and evaluate trustworthy data of direct relevance to them.
Organisations such as ourselves and our many fellow travellers in technology publishing work hard at sourcing good and useful information, but the economics of our market don't allow us to run the sort of long-term, in-depth laboratory projects that can fully examine the implications of major IT decisions. Vendors will happily drown prospective customers in case studies, white papers and inch-thick research documents, all with a veneer of objectivity that rarely survives critical reading. And it's an unusual company that will divulge the good and bad experiences it has had with its internal IT in the sort of detail that truly matters – often too late, as in the case of Sainsbury's recent quarter-billion pound write-off.
So there is a crying need for more independent, state-funded research into the sort of problems that really matter to today's IT implementors. Investment here will be amply repaid – every increase in the efficiency and reliability of systems will reflect directly on the bottom line, and increase confidence in creating the more imaginative and innovative businesses on which economic growth depends. The OGC report is very welcome: more, please.