The great British open-source arms race

UK politicians are talking up their commitment to all things open source — but at some point the rhetoric has to stop and be replaced with action, says Mark Taylor

Politicians of all stripes seem to be espousing open source, but that bluster must be turned into action — and soon, says Mark Taylor.

First, shadow chancellor George Osborne advocates open source. Now minister for digital engagement Tom Watson promises to use more open-source software, if circumstances permit. The UK public sector just got interesting again.

Much of the commentary has inevitably focused on whether the politicians are serious, but this misses the point. We are witnessing a cold war — an arms race if you like.

The battleground is UK public-sector technology procurement, and the weapons are open source, open standards and open content. Weapons that make even the mighty Microsoft scared.

The market is enormous. At £100bn — and more than £19bn over budget already — you quickly see why it's important, and why it is worth fighting over. And with economies around the world approaching free fall, the question of whether the politicians are serious is no longer in their hands.

The current technology procurement model is unfair, unworkable and unsustainable, and everybody knows it. Too much money is spent on large systems that overpromise and underdeliver.

The truth is, despite protestation to the contrary, neither the government nor Her Majesty's loyal opposition has done anything significant with free software. And by significant, I do not mean running Apache on their web servers — most people do. I mean deployments on the scale we see in Spain, for example. Hundreds of thousands of free desktops served by core central infrastructure projects serving millions of schoolchildren and citizens. Until one of the British politicians does that, the cost savings will remain theoretical and onlookers and the press will stay sceptical.

No, this has to date been a war of words, and it is now rapidly escalating. But an arms race is a dangerous game and, like all arms races, the escalation has two consequences:

  1. Each round has to be more intense than the last
  2. At some point somebody, perhaps even accidentally, will fire a real shot, and when that happens serious trench fighting will break out

We are at the point where the shouting can't get any louder — both sides have talked it up as far as it can go. What the world, and certainly the ladies and gentlemen of the press, are waiting for now is to see some action. But who will fire the first shot?

It is true there have been a number of large and successful UK open-source public-sector projects. There is even one ground-breaking national one in stealth mode at the moment. They have all, without exception, been driven by individual visionaries within the organisations concerned, often at odds with central office and experiencing pressure to desist.

The existing vendor ecosystem, almost without exception, is geared to the old generation of proprietary providers. That means you will now see:

  1. All sorts of vendors claiming open-source skills they do not have
  2. The usual suspects attempting to redefine 'open' to mean 'closed'
  3. New entrants

Only one of these is a good thing...

Will the government really change or will the Tories get there first? Or will nothing change without continuing external pressure? Whatever the outcome, the reality is that the first group to show a real commitment, and put their money where their mouths are, will discover something quite rare.

Open source, open standards and open content are not just rhetoric, though they certainly make great slogans. They form a strategy that, when applied intelligently and with discrimination, can bring about the very changes and the very results that politicians of all parties claim they want. The rest of Europe knows this already.

The smart companies with the highest chance of surviving economic meltdown know this too. The cognoscenti of the tech world have known it for years. Let's hope, for all our sakes, at least one of the UK's main political parties isn't kidding this time.

As chief executive of Sirius Corporation, Mark Taylor has been instrumental in the adoption and rollout of open-source software at some of the largest corporations in Europe, including a growing number of companies running exclusively on free software, end to end, server to desktop. A direct participant in some of the leading enterprise open-source projects, Taylor is also a well-known authority on all aspects of the open-source phenomenon.