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25 February 2009, 15:29

Open Source Vendors welcome new UK Government policy, but want more action

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With a new government policy on open source announced, The H sounded out open source vendors for their reactions.

Simon Phipps, Chief Open Source Officer at Sun Microsystems was the first person The H called. He was pleased to see the updated policy, "It's a great thing to see it published, as the 2004 policy didn't help very much". The new policy had "a lot of good things in it" such as the costing in of exit, or as Phipps calls them, sundown costs and the preference towards open source because of, as the policy puts it, "its inherent flexibility". Phipps explained "Open source has inherent benefits in that it gives a CIO control of the complete life-cycle. The four freedoms put the CIO in control".

Although Phipps is still disappointed by some aspects of the policy, he says he is "A little disappointed to see the loopholes in the area of open formats and I would have liked to have seen a timetable for the action plan. For this to succeed the government CIO needs to put an aggressive timetable in place". The policy document omits any dates on the action plan items, and he felt that without that, the policy may not gain traction. Phipps also noted that without changes in how systems are purchased, open source may still find itself on an uneven playing field. Phipps preference is to move from "procurement led" buying and to an "adoption led market".

John Powell, CEO of Alfresco, also talked to The H. He welcomed the policy update "We haven't seen the take-up in the UK that we've seen elsewhere, so we think this is extremely good news that the government and Tom Watson are putting some positive PR behind open source". Powell noted that the big issue was changing procurement practices within government. "There is enormous positive discrimination towards Microsoft in the UK ... Civil servants tend to be measured on failure rather than success" and that they looked for the large companies as "a single arse to kick".

It wasn't just procurement that had to change though, "It will require a different mindset and behaviour from the system integrators" who, he felt, would need to adapt and integrate open source into the solutions for the UK Government. Because of this need for changes in mindsets, Powell closed saying "I hope Tom Watson doesn't think that updating the website is all that is needed ... We need positive steps on the action plan".

James Peel, Opsview Product Manager at Opsera, also gave his reaction to the new policy, saying that "broadly we are very supportive", but also pointed to the problems with the procurement process. He said "The government procurement process is still difficult and costly for SMEs (Small Medium Enterprises) to deal with – and many of the open source software companies are still SMEs - so the government also need to be more open about the way they procure software", suggesting that this "should reflect the open source process of download, try, pilot, buy support, rather than the usual expensive and time-consuming formal procurement methods currently employed."

Peel also noted that the policy may have an unintended consequence by "forcing existing suppliers to provide the same flexibility and re-usability as open source software" the policy could mean "higher costs for initial engagements, with only an ill-defined promise of savings in the longer term."

Opsera's CEO, Michael Walton did look on the upside of the policy adding, "We have first hand experience of government departments saving tens of thousands of pounds and receiving a ROI on their purchase in months – if this open source policy is adopted widely, then the government, the taxpayer and the nation will all be better off."

The H notes that all the different sizes of open source vendors we talked to had the same concerns; that the policy is a good move forward, but that a major change has to occur in how the government acquires new systems, and that the action plan outlined, needs to have a timetable and solid actions taken to ensure the policy results in tangible effects. If neither of these things happen, they all worry there is a possibility of the UK Government's open source policy remaining in neutral.


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