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Read-only nation: can Open Source change the British way?

Reg readers duke it out with Canonical

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Workshop We asked if open-source software had a part to play in increasing technological innovation in the UK. It seems that for a nation with such a great engineering heritage, we have too easily passed the tech leadership flag over to the US and to the emerging economies.

Steve George from Canonical speculated that open-source software could inspire more people to engage with technology, and that the UK’s firmly closed-source infrastructure could be stifling innovation, making us less competitive on the global stage.

And then you, the beloved readers of El Reg, joined the fray.

Most people seem to agree that the UK could be doing better. Oliver Jones offers the following: “In computing terms, I have long thought of the UK as being a ‘read-only’ nation. They love shiny Apple products and Sony PlayStations, but have zero interest in learning how to make something better.

Toying with technology

“It seems that many in the UK still regard technology as something to be played with, rather than something that is worth learning about."

“This is why inventors will continue to flock to other countries, where their technical knowledge is taken seriously by the people with money.”

UBFusion agrees, arguing that much of the technology invented here has been allowed to wither and die.

“It still fills me with awe that the first ARM processor (and the first widely available Risc architecture) was designed on humble BBC Model Bs,” he says.

“These platforms allowed everybody to produce open-source (or Basic listing) code that was readily deployed in schools, research facilities, even administration. Since the advent of IBM-compatibles, the game was lost to The Corporation.”

But for Jones, the problem is bigger than access to open-source software. He writes: “Are you really trying to say that trying out a Ubuntu CD at home is beyond the wit of Britain’s yoof?

“What the UK needs to do is show engineers that they are valued and that their jobs will not be shipped to India or China at the earliest possible opportunity. The next Steve Jobs or Bill Gates may well be in Britain, just like Jonathan Ive was, but as soon as they realise what a shithole the UK is, they’ll emigrate and pay their taxes to another government.”

“Open source permeates right to the heart of UK biz"

As to whether open source could be part of the solution, “Admiral Grace Hopper" sums it up thus: “While the operating system is important, it isn’t the be-all and end-all – you can innovate regardless of platform.

Big bad wolf

“There is still a base level of innovation going on in Britain, but we haven’t had a major success outside the games industry for so long that it sometimes looks as though it’s dead and buried. Whatever the missing spark is, it isn’t anything to do with the platform, it’s the right people having the right idea and finding the right backing.”

Not everyone is a fan of open source. Mike Shepherd thinks Linux has had long enough to prove itself. “Instead of asking ‘Who knows’, get back to us in ten years and let us know,” he writes.

“Better still, since Linux has been around for twice that long, please point to the persuasive examples that show clearly the fatal error of depending on ‘proprietary’ software.”

Shepherd believes that you get what you pay for. “It seems more likely that proprietary software does well in the UK because we can afford it, while the ‘Chinese rural communities’ cannot,” he writes.

“Using open-source software might not put them greatly at a disadvantage, but neither will it turn them from necessity into soaring eagles of computer technology, any more than the quirks of my car will push me to redesign it and hence forge a new automobile industry to rival Honda, Mercedes and the rest.”

Vic 4 retorts that in some cases open-source software might have “kept the wolf from the door” for some small firms facing bankruptcy.

But Jon 52 likes the automobile analogy and takes it further. “Open source is like a car in the 50s,” he says. “Yes, it would be easier and cheaper for me to maintain if it had the simple mechanical parts of yesteryear. However, I drive a modern car as it has better fuel economy and is more reliable with less interference from me.

“I take the hit in the fact there are no user serviceable parts in the engine and even to change a headlight requires a mechanic to access it.”

Stars in their eyes

It wouldn’t be a discussion about tech in the UK without the government getting the blame. In this case, readers felt the finger could be pointed squarely at New Labour. Or any other government that happened to be closest at the time. Or maybe none at all.

An anonymous coward suggests: “Always easily impressed by big numbers, New Labour firmly established a culture where ‘doing IT’ could be entrusted only to large businesses with slick marketing, closed-source products and eye-watering support charges.”

But Jones rebuffs this. “I do not think you can ascribe that to New Labour,” he writes. “It has been a generic British thing. Yes, New Labour helped out in certain ways (IR35, for example), but the UK would not have been much better off under the Conservatives or any other government.”

We’ll leave it to Tom38 to close the debate by extending something of a bridge over troubled water. “Open source permeates right to the heart of UK biz, from the financial house using RabbitMQ to the plethora of web developers using a variety of open-source frameworks, often for very small businesses,” he writes.

“What we tend not to do is spend money for the sake of it. Putting people trained in a lifetime of Windows in front of Ubuntu costs money and productivity, and besides, every computer comes with Windows anyway.

“It’s more hassle for an IT department to request Linux, or receive rebates on Microsoft licences, or deal with a deluge of user support queries, than it is to just accept the cost. ®

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