U.K. gov’t report cites merits of open source

Open source software proponents received a potential boost from the U.K. government on Thursday with a release of a report citing the well-documented advantages on the server side, but also growing maturity on the desktop front.

The assessments were made by the U.K. government’s central procurement agency, the Office of Government Commerce (OGC), in summarizing its trials of open source software use in the public sector.

The OGC cited progress in desktop products, such as OpenOffice or Sun Microsystems Inc.’s StarOffice, for “transactional workers” who handle routine duties, but not for “knowledge” or “power users” who require more advanced capabilities. However, 85 to 90 per cent of the desktop users at government trial sites were transactional users who could do their jobs with basic word processing, e-mail and spreadsheet tools, the report said.

“The desktop end of the market has matured a lot in the last 12 months and we are not sure we are there yet, but it has made great strides,” said Martin Day, spokesman for the OGC.

In addition to its maturing functionality, open source software has related benefits in terms of hardware, since it requires less memory and a slower processor speed for the same functionality offered by proprietary applications, the OGC report said.

The OGC’s positive assessment of the desktop products may lend added weight to the open source cause, which has gained increased recognition by public sector agencies that often lack cash and may be looking for a lower-cost alternative to proprietary software.

“Coming from the influential OGC, this is undoubtedly a boost for open source software in the U.K., where until recently interest has lagged that in many other European countries,” Ovum Ltd. analyst Eric Woods wrote in an assessment of the report.

However, the OGC’s endorsement was not without its caveats, as it warned that user migration and interoperability of complex files still remain issues. “Change is always daunting for people and we need a solution that requires as little retraining as possible,” Day said.

Coincidentally, the OGC report comes as the agency is finalizing a three-year extension to its memorandum of understanding (MoU) with Microsoft Corp., which has enjoyed a long-time partnership with the U.K. government. Day emphasized, however, that the MoU offers government organizations the option of Microsoft software at a good price and does not mean that agencies are tied into using Windows.

“That’s why we offer MoUs rather than doing-business deals that require us to buy a certain volume of software,” Day said. “What we are doing is encouraging public sector bodies to consider all solutions.”

Microsoft responded to the report by issuing a statement Thursday saying that it understands that it is the government’s role to “promote a level playing field and to foster increased competition in any market.” It added, however, that the report’s findings “do not align fully” with feedback it gets from its customers who weigh Microsoft software against open source applications.

According to Ovum’s Woods, however, the idea that cheaper open source desktop offerings will suit a majority of users, while only power users may require the full capabilities offered by Microsoft, may be worrying for the company.

But the OGC’s conclusions aren’t the first challenges that the Redmond, Wash., software maker has faced in the public sector as governments throughout Europe, and worldwide, have been taking a closer look at open source alternatives.

Advantages on the server side in terms of offering lower cost and strong performance have been well documented, by both government and private sector organizations, the OGC noted. And while open source desktop alternatives have not gained the same amount of traction, the OGC report indicates that they could soon be nipping even closer to Microsoft’s heels.

On the other hand open source business applications, which are limited and still generally immature, facing serious challenges, the OGC said. The applications that do exist are more appropriate for small or medium-size businesses for large public sector bodies, as they “lack industrial strength,” the OGC said.

The open source pilots were run at various government agencies earlier this year, using software from IBM Corp. and Sun. However, the vendors did not sponsor the trials, which were considered independent, Day said.

“We heard that open source was the greatest thing since sliced bread but we needed evidence,” Day said.

While the agency concluded that “open source software is a viable and credible alternative to proprietary software for infrastructure implementations, and for meeting the requirements of the majority of desktop users,” it recommended that agencies assess migration issues, the development of skills for implementation and support and interoperability issues before adoption.

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