Following the publication of results from trials showing that "free" software works and saves money, the government has finally given the green light for the use of open source software on government desktops - but plans to keep the door open to Microsoft too.
The announcement marks the first significant shift in policy on open source for more than two years and is significant because open source had previously been seen as an option only for consolidating servers and other "back-room" systems.
A report by the Treasury's Office of Government Commerce (OGC) - set up to get better value from government procurements - announces that open source is a "viable desktop alternative for the majority of users" and that it can generate "significant savings".
Interoperability with other systems is "not now a major issue".
The report also found potential "green" benefits because open source software can prolong the life of computer hardware.
However, the new policy is unlikely to quell critics of the close relationship between Microsoft and the British government, its largest customer outside the US and Microsoft, meanwhile, will continue to argue that its software works out cheaper than "free" programs when measured by total cost of ownership.
Open source supplier IBM welcomed the OGC decision: "This report emphasises many of the benefits open source offers government organisations as the UK continues to advance the e-government agenda," said Martin Goodman, director of IBM public sector business.
Ian Watmore, the government's chief information officer, however, says that he has no opinion on open source, describing himself as a pragmatist. He says he wants to create a competitive market.
One long-standing critic of Microsoft, Eddie Bleasdale, of consultancy Netproject, welcomed the announcement. "I am glad that government is jumping on the bandwagon."
But he said making decisions on the total cost of ownership is "fraught with difficulty". "Coming up with a generic cost model is not meaningful."
Decisions, he said, should be made on "what is best for your long-term future and this usually means you have control of your IT infrastructure and are no longer dependent on your supplier."
Sources: The Guardian, The Register
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