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UK is a closed source 'stronghold'

Proprietary software is the opiate of the people

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Workshop The UK lags behind the rest of the world in deployments of open source software. Steve George, vice-president of business development at Canonical, believes this is a mistake that compromises not only our economy but also our global competitiveness.

In China rural communities are receiving millions of PCs running Linux. In India Ubuntu is the platform of choice for the regional government in Kerala. In France the police force is migrating everything to Ubuntu desktop, and in Andalusia in Spain the operating system sits on at least 220,000 school desktops.

But the UK is less fertile ground. Indeed, according to George’s colleague Paul Holt, the UK has one of the most heavily proprietary computing environments in the world. “We are an extremely profitable market for the big closed-sources firms,” he says.

George argues that this makes it hard for businesses to innovate and puts us at risk of de-skilling technologists.

"We can’t wait to see which ideas will be good, we have to try everything and applaud the attempts”

“Proprietary software is the opiate of the people,” he says. “If you click on the box and it doesn’t work, that is the end of the process. Even if it occurs to you to wonder whether you could improve things, you have no way of doing so. With open source, you can inspect the code, look around, maybe find a better way of doing something.

“It might only be a small percentage of people who do that, but they are the future technologists, the ones who will come up with the next big thing.”

George believes we should escape what he calls the “curiosity trap” and encourage students and children to play with technology more.

In a rut

So why, with our great engineering heritage, are we stuck in the proprietary rut? One reason is a wrong-headed belief that the UK doesn’t do technology. After the recent launch of the National Lottery’s BIG Innovation centre, sceptics were saying that the UK should stick to what it does best, financial services, according to George.

He is convinced the naysayers are wrong and cites the Last.fm music download site as proof that we can do edgy, innovative technology.

“We are at a point where, if we want to get the economy moving, we have to try everything. We can’t wait to see which ideas will be good, we have to try everything and applaud the attempts. Open source is not the only solution, but it should be part of it,” he says.

George sees a vicious circle. Because of the UK’s proprietary environment, people are detached from the workings of the software they use. As a result, they don’t get excited about the possibilities of new technology. As a nation, we stay with the systems we know.

By contrast, George points to China, where Canonical is involved in a project to ship millions of PCs pre-installed with Ubuntu out to rural communities.

“Who knows what the people who get these machines will do with them,” George says. “The next Bill Gates or Steve Jobs could be out there right now. The next Google could come out of rural China. We have to give ourselves every chance of competing against that.”

The ZX-81, born 30 years ago, has been credited with inspiring a generation of engineers in the UK and elsewhere. Perhaps the next generation of technologists need similarly unfettered access to the code behind the software we use. ®

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