Brainpower versus wallet power

Nieuws | de redactie
2 mei 2012 | 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, theConservative Party immediately put forward a Technology Manifesto.One of the main pillars of this manifesto – next to establishing 12new technical Academies through the country – was the proposedcreation of a level playing field for open source IT, byimplementing ‘open standards’ across all government IT systems.

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


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

If proprietary software providers, like Microsoft for example,lock customers into their system, at some point every user has toupgrade to a new version or risk losing access to data such as textdocuments, spread sheets and other file formats it moving to analternative solution. At the same time, users have no influencewhatsoever on the product itself, and there is nothing a user cando about it.

Astronomic bills

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

For example, the mayor of City of Munich, Germany, only in Marchclaimed publically cost savings made by switching from MicrosoftWindows to an Open Source Linux alternative of over € 4 million in2011 alone. The savings come from not purchasing new Windowssoftware and upgrading systems and the license renewal expectedevery three to four years.

Removing barriers for start-ups

The point of the UK government’s open standards policy in 2010was to regulate failed technology markets by removing barriers suchas 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 wouldopen standards boost innovative businesses and help create highlypaid new jobs,  it would also avoid the waste of public moneyon faulty IT-systems, since open standards would break largeIT-projects  down in modular parts, allowing all differentmodules to communicate. If there is no one common denominator, youlimit the innovative possibilities to a restricted group of peoplethat understand multiple languages.

Turned around by MS-lobby

But the UK government did not reckon with the lobbying clout ofthe world’s IT monopolists. Following a public consultation inApril dominated by proprietary lobbyists, a spokeswoman of theCabinet Office said that “The consensus was that the proposedpolicy would be detrimental to competition and innovation.” Inother words: Microsoft had swayed the opinion in favour of ‘inlocking software’.

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

Conflict of interest

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

Stealth tax

And they are not wasting their time. Leading UK Open Standardsexperts – representing the Free and Libre Open Source Software UK,the Free Software Foundation Europe, Open Forum Europe and the OpenSource Consortium – called upon the Government to “not do anythingwhich will result in the imposition in a stealth tax upon citizens,for example by requiring them to purchase specific products forinteracting with online public services.”

They also request “that anybody and everybody be able toparticipate in public sector procurement, regardless of theirbusinesses model” and “to leverage truly open innovativetechnologies to achieve long term savings.” Only this would bring amore “competitive and diverse market for public contracts,reduction of barriers to participation in public sector ITaffecting small and medium size enterprises, and realisation of thepotential benefits of its existing Open Data strategy.”

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