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British public bodies unsure on open source

Lack of coherent policy on open source hinders uptake in UK public sector

Local authorities in the UK are far less likely to use open-source software than those of some other European countries, according to findings from a Dutch study. The study has so far found that 32 percent of local authorities in Britain use open-source software, compared with 71 percent in France, 68 percent in Germany and 55 percent in the Netherlands.

These figures are the preliminary results of the FLOSSpols (Free/Libre/Open Source Software: Policy Support) study carried out by the Maastricht Economic Research Institute on Innovation and Technology (MERIT), based on the analysis of 371 responses as of November 2004. The complete survey results, with a total of more than 750 respondents, will be published at the end of February.

The figures are the latest indicators that the UK public sector is lagging far behind the powerhouses of continental Europe where it comes to open source. While the UK government has carried out investigations into the way open source should be considered in public sector procurement, its efforts have been tentative compared with those of Germany, France and the Netherlands, according to Rishab Aiyer Ghosh, FLOSS program leader at MERIT.

This lack of centralised, coordinated support is reflected low levels of open source use at the local level, he said. "The UK government does not seem to have a consistent policy for open source and open standards, with different organisations taking very different approaches," said Ghosh. "Not all other European governments have a consistent policy on open source either, but... the Netherlands, Germany and France have all published national-level policy documents that are fairly encouraging for open source."

One UK organisation aiming to give clear advice on open source is OSS Watch, under whose aegis last week's conference was held. OSS Watch is funded by JISC (the Joint Information Systems Committee), which provides ICT guidance to educational and administrative organisations, while OSS Watch specifically focuses on higher and further education.

OSS Watch spokesman Randy Metcalfe said the organisation has found a mixture of proprietary and open source software in use in FE and HE. FE organisations tend to choose open source for reasons of cost, while for HE the top criterion was interoperability, with cost coming second, Metcalfe said.

For the private sector, too, there are still significant barriers to adopting open source, according to a new survey from Seattle startup SourceLabs. Despite the efforts of the biggest Linux vendors, large enterprises still shy away from open source because of difficulties in acquisition, lack of integration among different open source components, lack of commitment to system dependability and lack of mission-critical support, SourceLabs said last week.

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