Open source not ready for desktop, IBM told UK government

Remind us - who's running the OSS pilots?

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The UK government has a 'level playing field' policy for use of Open Source Software, but although it is supposed to be considering "OSS solutions alongside proprietary ones in IT procurements", this does not seem to have produced much in the way of significant deployments or contracts. And who is to blame for this apparent lack of movement? A smoking pistol placed before a Parliamentary Committee last week seemed to implicate that well-known partisan of Open Source Software IBM.

Tuesday's Public Accounts Committee heard evidence on "Purchasing and Managing Software Licences" from Office of Government Commerce chief executive Peter Gershon and OGC buying solution chief executive Hugh Barrett. The two were quizzed by Labour's Brian Jenkins MP: "Am I right to say that the minister [who was at the time Douglas Alexander] announced in a publication the government's OSS policy in July of last year which sets up a level playing field for procuring such solutions?... You were charged with implementing that policy, yet that was in July 2002 and at the present time you are undertaking a study which is not reporting until 2004. Am I correct?"

Just a few weeks before the Committee's hearing the OGC had announced nine 'proof of concept' trials of OSS, which Gershon said at the time "will enable us to identify when and how best to use the technology". Jenkins' point is that between July 2002 and October 2003 there does not appear to have been a great deal of action from the OGC on the subject, and one really can't help thinking he might have something here.

Gershon's response was that other things had happened in the interval. Such as, er, "In September my office produced more detailed guidance to departments on the implementation of policy." So something happened the month before last too. Phew. And a special interest group was formed, with the proof of concept trials being "partly as a result of the work" of that group.

Jenkins was unmollified:

"He [Douglas Alexander] actually went on to say that you are continuing to support departments to ensure that OSS solutions demonstrate best value for money. Could you tell me how you are supporting these departments? What sort of manpower do you have working in these departments? How many people are you using to undertake this review? If you cannot tell me now, could we have a note please? I find this strange because I was given an assurance that the minister had a policy in July 2002 and yet we are not going to be delivering information on this particular area until November 2004. There is a level of urgency here and how many people do you have working on this?"

Hugh Barrett jumped in to explain the time lag (tacitly accepting by doing so, surely, that there has been a lack of movement?):

"May I answer the question on why it has taken 18 months for the trial to take place? I have had these conversations with companies like IBM and other people who are involved in the Open Source arena. In 2002, their view was that Open Source software was not robust enough for use on the desktop. Therefore we would frankly have been irresponsible to have recommended its use. Eighteen months on, software industry has matured, the products have matured and our judgment was that now was the time to run those pilots. Eighteen months ago the software industry said it was not fit for purpose."

Barrett does not specify who the "other people who are involved in the Open Source arena" are, so if any luminaries of the aforementioned arena recognise themselves we'd be more than pleased to hear from them. But it seems reasonable to presume that IBM, which is now masterminding the pilots, will have been highly influential in telling Barrett at some point between July 2002 and September 2003 that OSS was not robust enough for use on the desktop, and that the OGC recommending it would "frankly have been irresponsible." Register sources suggest that if IBM has mysteriously got religion about OSS on the desktop, it has done so quite recently. We're informed that IBM did talk to Newham Borough Council concerning the Council's own plans for migrating desktops to open source, but that IBM said it didn't do OSS desktops, and therefore didn't get that particular gig.

IBM will shortly be back in Newham running the OGC pilot there, but we've no idea whether or not it proposes to deign to desktop this time.

Back at the Public Accounts Committee, Jenkins suggests that Barrett's answer means "the minister was plainly misled" when he announced the policy. Gershon's response is a Yes Minister masterpiece:

"No, he was announcing a policy. We do want to create a level playing field for Open Source software. He did not say that from the day we announced the policy, overnight things would change. We have to take into account the maturity of the technology. We think we were ahead of the game. By laying down the policy in advance of the maturity of the technology we can intercept when the technology becomes mature and robust for the desktop environment."

So this is not a delay at all, but an advanced state of preparedness. UK.gov sits like a coiled viper ready to strike just as soon as IBM and "other people" give the word. The policy document itself (available here) incidentally lists what the OGC was to do in implementing it. It should update its procurement guidelines to reflect the policy; make available to "all those involved in procurement" advice on "areas of the software infrastructure and application marketplace where OSS has strengths and weaknesses"; give advice on the assessment of the merits of OSS versus proprietary solutions; and discuss the area of R&D software with the DTI and academic research institutions. (We hear this last one isn't going very well either - so we'd also be pleased to hear from people who attended what you might call the "Berkeley bloodbath" at the beginning of last month)

Note that Gershon and Barrett only covered the 18 months delay, and did not answer Jenkins' questions covering what was being done in support of the policy, and what resources were being deployed to this end. Jenkins however repeated his request for a note, so an answer will presumably be forthcoming.

The Committee then returned to discussion of the main event, the progress of the OGC's deal with Microsoft on the purchase of desktop software licences. Gershon told the Committee he would be renegotiating this to obtain further discounts, but the tactics he proposed to use were explained in private session. If Gershon proposes to threaten to move to open source on the desktop, we fear Microsoft may not find him entirely convincing. ®

* There's quite a lot more interesting information about the OGC's dealings with Microsoft in the full transcript, which you will find here. Also in there you'll find a lamentable illustration of how Hugh Barrett scientifically assesses software, when he's not asking IBM:

Mr Barrett: Would it be helpful if I talked about my personal experience?
The Register: Of course not, you pillock, we want a properly-conducted study. (but unfortunately, we weren't there)
Mr Barrett: This is even closer to home, this is me as an individual user. I thought I would investigate the use of Open Source software on my personal computer at home. I got a licence, free of charge, but after three hours of struggling to retrain myself from many years of using Microsoft, I abandoned it. On a sample of one, me personally, it was more cost effective to stay with Microsoft. Those arguments, when magnified across the whole public sector, may well sway the balance against the Open Source software. They may not, but we do need to take them into account, which is why we are putting in place these proof of concept trials.
The Register: Good grief, you'll be telling us about your flippin' granny next...

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