The UK government confirmed on Monday that it will consider open-source software in a bid to avoid getting locked-in to proprietary IT products, and that contracts will be awarded on a value-for-money basis.
Not only central government will be affected by the policy: so too will local governments and the wider public sector, including non-departmental public bodies and the National Health Service.
The move is likely to be seen as a major boost to open-source software, which has been increasingly adopted by big software vendors since 1998 when the likes of IBM, Oracle and Computer Associates started to take it seriously. IBM has since said it has devoted $1bn to marketing and development of open-source software.
What marks open-source software out as different from proprietary is the licence under which it is distributed. Open-source licences -- of which the GNU General Public Licence is the best-known example -- allow organisations and individuals to use and modify the code free of charge, so long as any modifications are given back to the programming community.
In the final draft of the government's policy on open-source software, published on Monday by the Office of Government Commerce (OGC), the government says that in all future IT developments where interoperability is an issue, it will only use products that support open standards and specifications. Furthermore, it will follow a recent European Commission policy document that suggested exploring the open-source route for all government-funded software research and development.
"OSS is indeed the start of a fundamental change in the software infrastructure marketplace, but it is not a hype bubble that will burst and UK government must take cognisance of that fact," said the OGC in the policy document.
The government is already pushing adoption of open standards through its e-Government Interoperability Framework (e-GIF) but, said the OGC, it is now considered necessary to have a more explicit policy on the use of OSS within the UK government and this document details that policy.
The OGC said it was satisfied that open-source software could provide good enough security for government systems. "Properly configured open-source software can be at least as secure as proprietary systems, and is currently subject to fewer Internet attacks," it said, adding that in some cases mainstream proprietary products may be significantly less secure than open-source alternatives.
The decision comes one week before Microsoft's deadline for customers to sign up to its controversial Software Assurance licensing scheme, which analysts say will hike fees for large customers substantially. Instead to being able to use the common practice of being able to buy software upgrades when it suits them, companies will have to either pay the full price when they upgrade, or pay an annual fee under the Software Assurance programme for the right to upgrade.
Microsoft, which remains the only big software company not to port its applications to open source platforms such as Linux, is keen for governments to ignore the platform too.
In a speech delivered to the Government Leaders' Conference in Seattle earlier this year, Microsoft chairman Bill Gates likened the concept of software based on the General Public License -- which much open-source software uses -- to anti-capitalism, adding that those governments who put development time into it are denying themselves the benefits of essential taxes. "The so-called (Free Software Foundation)... says that these other countries other than the US should devote R&D dollars in the so-called open approach, that means you can never commercialise that software," said Gates at the time.