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Last Updated: Friday, 10 October, 2003, 12:20 GMT 13:20 UK
UK tests open source waters
The decision by the UK Government to pilot the use of open source software is likely to worry Microsoft, as technology analyst Bill Thompson explains.

The trials will cover a range of departments
Over the next day or two, somewhere in one of Microsoft's European offices, a group of worried people will be sitting down to try to figure out what the UK's Office of Government Commerce is up to, and how to stop them.

The OGC has just announced a deal with IBM to trial open source software - programs where the source code is available to users to read, change and even give away to other people - in nine different areas of government.

The trials, under the supervision of the Office of the E-envoy, are intended to measure the effectiveness and cost-benefits of open source software compared with the more usual proprietary systems sold by companies like Microsoft or - as in the recent NHS booking system - SchlumbergerSema.

They cover a range of departments, from the Office of the Deputy Prime Minister to the e-envoy's office itself, and include both Orkney Council and Newham Borough Council at local level.

We can be sure that there will be lots of meetings going on inside Microsoft, because that is just what happened when the German city of Munich decided to use open source software in preference to Windows. The result was a secret offer of massive discounts.

It is also what they did when the preparatory meetings for the World Summit on the Information Society seemed to be endorsing open source over proprietary software as a way of bridging the digital divide, and the result was a very watered down commitment to a level playing field in software procurement.

Now they will be looking for ways to influence the OGC pilots just as effectively.

Fighting a 'cancer'

It is not wrong of Microsoft, or any vendor of closed software, to do this. After all, they are in business to sell stuff and they should be free to compete for market share.

However it seems that Microsoft's battle against any form of open source software, and particularly against software that is distributed under the GNU Public Licence or GPL - what is usually called free software - sometimes goes beyond the bounds of acceptable competition.

Bill Thompson
It should not be forgotten that the UK Government, like the rest of us, is already a major user of open source software, just because so much of the net's infrastructure depends on it
Microsoft executives have said the GPL is like a cancer for intellectual property, because the licence requires anyone who incorporates their own program code into GPL software to release the resulting program under the same licence.

They have misrepresented the GPL, and then claimed that their own program to let major clients see the source code of Windows amounts to the same sort of openness.

They have commissioned report after report from third-party consultants in an attempt to show that the total cost of ownership of a GNU/Linux system is more than that of a comparable Microsoft platform.

Microsoft is worried about open source, so the OGC trial will be a major concern inside the company.

If it shows that open source software is reliable, cost-effective and secure, as I believe it will, then it will be used both to support open source projects in the UK and to endorse it when other governments decide to follow a similar path.

This could significantly damage Microsoft's market share. It will also have a significant psychological effect by showing that they are not invulnerable, and this may in turn encourage the open source community to further success.

The trials will include use of the GNU/Linux operating system as an alternative to other flavours of Unix or Microsoft's own Windows Server 2003 for hosting larger applications, and it is this that is attracting most attention.

Open movement

But it should not be forgotten that the UK Government, like the rest of us, is already a major user of open source software, just because so much of the net's infrastructure depends on it.

Domain names like bbc.co.uk are translated into IP addresses by an open source program, Bind. E-mail is moved around by the open source sendmail.

Much of the net's infrastructure depends on open source
And there are almost certainly some open source Apache web servers behind government sites.

The main benefits of open source come from the fact that the code is available to be checked over, changed and incorporated in other systems.

It is worth remembering that until relatively recently the UK Government had all of this anyway because a lot of code was written internally by programmers who worked for them.

I remember training developers at the Inland Revenue about Unix security back in 1992, before the technology department was sold off to EDS.

But the other advantage of open source software is that it is not only the development team, who are working under pressure, who get to see it.

The whole online community of programmers can look for bugs, suggest changes and generally look at what is going on.

It is to be hoped that the OGC's pilot projects will take advantage of this major strength of the open source movement, and not conduct their pilots behind the closed doors of the government secure intranet.

So we need to be reassured that we, both as taxpayers who are paying for the work and as members of the open source community, will have full access to the code as it is being developed.

Otherwise we will not need Microsoft to undermine the success of the pilots. The OGC will have managed it for itself.

Bill Thompson is a regular commentator on the BBC World Service programme Go Digital.

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