How ‘Democratic’ Open Source Can Aid UK Tech Growth

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BLOG: Rafael Laguna, CEO of Open-Xchange, explains how governments and the UK tech industry can learn from the democratic ethos of open source and startups

Forget the dotcom bubble burst of the noughties; never before has the promise of a digital economy ranked so highly in the global marketplace.

Having faced significant downturns over the last decade or so, many economies – the UK, Portugal and Iceland, to name a few – have spawned a new wave of digital entrepreneurs.

Those who perhaps found themselves out of a job, or facing unprecedented levels of competition for limited employment opportunities after education, have created their own jobs and companies, bringing new-found energy and increased competitiveness into the enterprise sector.

This in part has spurned the rise of the European Unicorn, with 13 tech companies achieving the mystical status in the past year.

Government support needed

opensourceIn the UK alone, the tech sector is reportedly worth £58 billion, with clusters popping up in areas such as London, Cambridge and the North East – a mix of start-ups and established companies.

The government has an obligation to support this growth and must deliver specific digital targets and commitments to the national business agenda in order to increase the UK’s global technology competitiveness. Looking beyond this, we need sturdy policy and standards frameworks at a global level in order to support wider, collaborative-technology industry growth.

A commitment to open source technology is not just a good starting point when looking at viable frameworks to support growth – but a vital one. These technologies have traditionally been huge drivers for growth, and we can continue to learn a lot from having a ruthlessly ‘open’ ethos.

The recent publication of the Digital Magna Carta by the British Library, demonstrated the fact that privacy and the right to be “free from government censorship and surveillance” is still high on the agenda.

Open source democracy

In fact, open source software is a pretty good example of the fundamentals of the democratic process itself. It encourages everyone to contribute to the process of creating new software.

Everyone has access to the fruits of their communal labour, regardless of business size, market share or budget. The intellectual property is shared for the benefit of everyone and the improvement of society, rather than for the profit of a few. It’s easy to see the benefits of open source, but perhaps not as easy to understand why adoption isn’t greater.

Frustratingly, the old cliché “No one ever got fired for buying IBM” still dictates software purchasing decisions for many organizations, particularly in the public sector and enterprise world. Isn’t it about time we collectively recognize that there are viable alternatives still allow us to operate and grow agile, stable and profitable businesses?

Maybe it’s time to tap into that start-up ethos for some inspiration in digital entrepreneurialism.

Public and private scrutiny

Of course, for public administrations the above adage is valid in many respects, because the use of public money is naturally going to be under scrutiny, with added procurement hurdles to jump over for good measure.

Going with a licensed or proprietary software solution, which sometimes offers lower risk and greater accountability, is on paper often the simplest decision – but calls into question the real price of TCO.

Put bluntly, getting tied into single-vendor contracts can prove crippling in terms of cost to public administrations. A report last year from Whitehall Monitor confirmed that large IT firms accounted for the biggest portion of government contracts from a financial aspect.

Similarly, let’s look at a blue-chip company following similar software purchasing patterns. Proprietary software is likely to be quicker off the mark to ‘plug in and play’; of course, this frees up time better invested in other business areas. But offset this against a monetary ROI – isn’t this financial resource which, once locked into single software or IT vendors, can’t be freed up and injected back into the business?

Furthermore, there is a danger with proprietary software solutions that a lack of interoperability will inhibit innovation, both in the public and private sectors. It closes opportunities for collaboration and global growth.

European approval

techcityConsider how much trust you put in any software that you deploy. Open source means transparency and many eyes see more than one pair. Not having to trust the provider of software is important, especially when it comes to Cloud services, where all means of controlling the security of a network are waived to the provider of the service. Rather it is better to make sure you can trust the software that is run for you, make it open source and you know for sure what it is.

The key here, as with any true democratic decision, is the freedom to make informed choices.

At a European level, we are at least making good headway in recognizing that a commitment to open source technology mirrors and fosters democratic engagement; both literally (in terms of devolution of power away from the vendors currently monopolizing the software market) and ethically (in terms of the belief that software and government should both be open).

The European Commission’s Open Source Observatory and Repository (OSOR) has been put in place to enable and encourage stronger continental collaboration, heralding far better interoperability and fostering development at both a national and international level.

While this is significant progress, we still stand to learn more from other, perhaps unexpected, markets taking big strides. We should look to places like India – with a relatively young democratic system – which is genuinely innovating in open source software.

The country recently announced a mandate that the ‘Government of India shall endeavour to adopt Open Source Software in all e-Governance systems implemented by various Government organizations, as a preferred option in comparison to Closed Source Software’.

Breaking down barriers

Open source technology breaks down barriers not just in terms of cost – but in terms of open, honest and collaborative best practices. And actually, ‘the real road to democracy’ need not just apply to open source – there is room for this principle to hold a firmer place across wider technology and business industries.

These are all initiatives which seek to enhance our accessibility to collaborative solutions – both in personal and professional capacities.

The adoption of these principles has never been more important against the backdrop of an ever-burgeoning digital global economy. Perhaps, even in seemingly developed democratic economies, we could learn a lot from the ethos of open source, and its democratic values, in more areas than one.

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