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  • Brainpower versus wallet power

    - The UK government gives IT-innovation a second chance. The fate of ‘open standards’ has not yet been sealed and Open Source advocates still believe the power of Microsoft can be reined and innovative start-ups can still end up as winners.

    As the Cameron government rose to power in 2010, the Conservative Party immediately put forward a Technology Manifesto. One of the main pillars of this manifesto - next to establishing 12 new technical Academies through the country - was the proposed creation of a level playing field for open source IT, by implementing 'open standards' across all government IT systems.

    Ever since 2001 a group of companies together with Sun Microsystems began to work on an Open Document Format (ODF) accredited by ISO in 2006. Microsoft was not a part of the consortium, although they were invited to cooperate. The source code of ODF is open, so that anyone can build upon it.

    Locked-in

    Preceding the Technology Manifesto a lot of local authorities had been complaining about Microsofts monopoly, preventing them to make use of other IT-systems. Many organisations were locked-in, the proprietary software did not allow the simple transfer to other systems, any such move would bring with it high cost and loss of data.

    If proprietary software providers, like Microsoft for example, lock customers into their system, at some point every user has to upgrade to a new version or risk losing access to data such as text documents, spread sheets and other file formats it moving to an alternative solution. At the same time, users have no influence whatsoever on the product itself, and there is nothing a user can do about it.

    Astronomic bills

    For an individual user the costs of proprietary software are often hidden in the price of a new pc, which usually comes with Microsoft Windows and Microsoft Office preinstalled. However, for corporate or government users the licenses for thousands of employees are a significant cost factor.

    For example, the mayor of City of Munich, Germany, only in March claimed publically cost savings made by switching from Microsoft Windows to an Open Source Linux alternative of over € 4 million in 2011 alone. The savings come from not purchasing new Windows software and upgrading systems and the license renewal expected every three to four years.

    Removing barriers for start-ups

    The point of the UK government's open standards policy in 2010 was to regulate failed technology markets by removing barriers such as those inherent in proprietary standards like Microsofts. Conservatives estimated these measures to gain £ 6 billion.

     The policy would be a double edged sword: not only would open standards boost innovative businesses and help create highly paid new jobs,  it would also avoid the waste of public money on faulty IT-systems, since open standards would break large IT-projects  down in modular parts, allowing all different modules to communicate. If there is no one common denominator, you limit the innovative possibilities to a restricted group of people that understand multiple languages.

    Turned around by MS-lobby

    But the UK government did not reckon with the lobbying clout of the world's IT monopolists. Following a public consultation in April dominated by proprietary lobbyists, a spokeswoman of the Cabinet Office said that "The consensus was that the proposed policy would be detrimental to competition and innovation." In other words: Microsoft had swayed the opinion in favour of 'in locking software'.

    Many open source protagonists claimed they had no knowledge of the consultation meeting and fired up a public debate in the blogosphere, scrutinising the process of the consultation. Embarrassingly to the UK Cabinet Office, it even became apparent that the Chair of the meeting, a formerly known advocate of open standards, was actually being paid for advising Microsoft directly on the on-going consultation.

    Conflict of interest

    The UK Cabinet Office took this as a conflict of interest and drew its conclusions. It has postponed the deadline of the consultation until June 4, which means the open source community has one more month to make the case for open standards.

    Stealth tax

    And they are not wasting their time. Leading UK Open Standards experts - representing the Free and Libre Open Source Software UK, the Free Software Foundation Europe, Open Forum Europe and the Open Source Consortium - called upon the Government to "not do anything which will result in the imposition in a stealth tax upon citizens, for example by requiring them to purchase specific products for interacting with online public services."

    They also request "that anybody and everybody be able to participate in public sector procurement, regardless of their businesses model" and "to leverage truly open innovative technologies to achieve long term savings." Only this would bring a more "competitive and diverse market for public contracts, reduction of barriers to participation in public sector IT affecting small and medium size enterprises, and realisation of the potential benefits of its existing Open Data strategy."