The future is coming ready-or-not

UK innovation and Open Source

with 7 comments

Why wasn’t Google invented in the UK? Where are all the great British software start-ups? Why isn’t there more Open Source in the UK?

That last question may not have come up in the Chancellors budget speech, but it should have. This was my central argument to The Register this week –  to move from an economy whose value is “the loan was created in Britain”, to one where it’s “invented, designed and built in Britain” then we need to unleash innovation through Open Source.

You might think it a bit self-serving for me to be pushing Open Source as the answer to the UK’s ills. In fact, as I far too passionately made my points to Lucy Sherriff, it crossed my mind that I could fully conform to my own stereotype of “special pleading corporate PR” by next asking for special tax breaks and complaining about unspecified (but nonetheless burdensome) “red-tape”! Nonetheless, I believe that technology and Open Source have to be key elements in the rebalancing of the UK’s economy.

First, lets put back into the box the idea that the UK cannot do technology, and that we should just leave it to Silicon Valley. The funny thing is that when you pull up the covers on successful valley technology companies you’ll find plenty of Brits. That shouldn’t be a surprise, the education system in the UK is strong, we have a fantastic tradition in science and engineering, and the language/culture compatibility helps. Finally, it completely ignores the evidence of the technology companies we do have, from successful start-ups such as Last.fm through to majors like ARM.

Perhaps it’s that cultural contrarianism that makes us unable to dwell on the positive or accentuate the good. A national character of, you say “tomato”, I say “no, it’s a squashed, bruised, fruit that tastes anaemic and who knows the long-term effects of the pesticides”. So, lets not waste any more bits on this – the UK has great technology capabilities and we should celebrate them!

So why is Open Source an important element in creating an environment that can create success for our technologists and economy? Because, it’s a leveller and a remover of locked-in de-facto networks. Open source releases innovation and provides ways for companies of all sizes to compete, bringing greater competition and delivering more value to everyone.

First, government wants to encourage start-ups and small business. There’s lots of policy options, but a big (perhaps the biggest) lever is government procurement. Our tax money should be used to buy great value technology, provided by local companies if at all possible. Governments know this, but they’re often concerned that small suppliers will fail – it’s a real concern because it happens. Mandating that the technology be Open Source removes that concern. That way if the supplier fails it can be supported and maintained by an alternative supplier. And, in the long-run you create a competitive national set of technology companies that will be employing locally and providing services far more efficiently than a small number of multi-national conglomerates (yes, looking at you Oracle).

Second, Open Source enables a local (ie national) supplier ecosystem to be created. Fundamentally, if our technology companies just resell proprietary software that’s developed by the large multinationals they will lack the skills to innovate and create on their own. Open Source is customisable and enables the suppliers to develop the same skills that will be needed to create products. There’s no black-boxes in Open Source, so if someone spots an opportunity or a gap they can understand it and innovate from there.

Third, Open Source provides more flexible and capable systems for end-users. My biggest fear about proprietary software is that it destroys enquiry in our children and students – it’s a curiosity trap. How many of the stories about great inventors (whether software or not) start with them taking apart everything they could get their hands on, from clocks to cars. They had a spirit of enquiry, a curiosity to understand and then improve.

In this era Open Source is the biggest library of software on the planet. In any domain, sphere or software idea there’s an Open Source project and some of the most skilled developers on the planet out there working on it. And everyone can read, understand and enquire – how short a step is it for the imagination to be fed and the idea of improving to occur? It’s terrible to anaesthetise our children and students with the idea that they shouldn’t look under the hood or understand what’s happening. That’s exactly what proprietary software does. And we risk missing the next Steve Jobs or Bill Gates because of it.

So really George (Osbourne in this case), stop throwing tax dollars at bribing multi-national banks to keep taking space in Canary Wharf. Unleash the UK into the forefront of the global technology revolution by adopting an industrial policy that develops technology as a key area, and for goodness sake make Open Source part of that mix. You know I’m right!


Written by Steve George

March 26, 2011 at 22:01

7 Responses

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  1. […] more: UK innovation and Open Source « Futurile This entry was posted on Saturday, March 26th, 2011 at 10:01 pm and is filed under Cars, Linux, […]

  2. Interesting perspective from the other side of the pond, Steve. Thanks for this.


    Dustin Kirkland

    March 28, 2011 at 13:52

  3. Steve,

    I am a card carrying Ubuntu user and I get where you are coming from, but I have a slightly different perspective.

    Your 3rd point about the curiosity trap I believe is the most important in the context of UK innovation.
    Now we teach people to use MS Office (or Open/Libre Office) and say they are learning computers. I disagree, to me this is office skills rather than computing.

    Computing is taking things apart and creating new tings, either physical or in software. The current culture doesn’t encourage this. It is only about consumption.

    Taking the massive step from where we are today to fully Open Source is too big.
    For now start smaller.

    I posted in reply to The Register article that the focus should be on what can be achieved and not the cause. People should use Open Source software because it is better not because it is Open.
    If Canonical wants to have an impact how about getting a school/public tour together demoing what can be done with Open Source software.

    Yes, show it all running on Ubuntu but with a focus on winning over the Tinkers to what they can do with this software. Then the natural route is to go the Open Source way. Next thing you know the next generation of technology innovators understand the power of Open and have a natural bias.


    March 29, 2011 at 12:49

    • Albert,

      Your point about teaching office skills rather than computing is sort of right. MS Office is still taught in the Majority of Schools and we are training (not teaching) Automated office skills using Microsoft Office. There are still far to few schools teaching with Open Source applications.

      We should be teaching the fundamentals of How to use a Word processor or Spreadsheet not use app a too do task b.

      “Computing is taking things apart and creating new tings, either physical or in software. The current culture doesn’t encourage this. It is only about consumption.” Is exactly were we are now, whats worse is in the past even Microsoft helped to a degree in teaching Computing self reliance is the past – look at the combined MS-DOS/ Windows 3.1 Manuals with sections such as putting network cards into your computer compared to the glossy brochure (if your lucky) you get now.


      Barnie Giltrap

      April 2, 2011 at 15:28

  4. Starting with the article in The Register, let’s look at the initial assertion: The UK lags behind the rest of the world in deployments of open source software.

    Where does that statement come from? Is it quantified (how far does the UK lag), does it lag behind _every_ other country?, what is a “deployment”? what qualifies as OSS? Without some hard, rational and agreed information it’s difficult to argue for or against this statement.

    Let’s accept for now that there are some places in the world where the proportion of Linux on peoples’ PCs is greater and the proportion of Windows is less, than these proportions in the UK. When measured purely by the number of instances.
    What does that mean. Are the drivers for one or t’other driven by idealism, a recognition that one philosophy drives a more creative process, that people who use one will be intrinsically more valuable than the other or that they will lay the foundation for a flourishing IT industry because of it. Or does it just mean that some regions don’t have the money to spend on paid-for software when there is a zero-purchase-cost option available?
    More importantly, is there any hard numerical evidence to back up the claimed benefits of OSS?

    My background is that I have been a Linux user since the early 90’s and am writing this on an Ubuntu 10.10 box. I have a degree and background in the physical sciences. I am also a software professional – writing, supporting, debugging and advocating the stuff. As a consequence, therefore, I would like to see OSS succeed (though given the number of times I have been told “this will be the year of Linux on the desktop”, I find it harder and harder to muster much enthusiasm for it).

    Why do I think OSS has a place in the world? Not for any of the reasons in the article. Firstly it seems to me that OSS allows the one user in a thousand with the skills, time and inclination to see examples of code written in the language of their choice. Once you have learned a language (computer or spoken) the single biggest factor in becoming proficient in it – i.e. being able to express yourself correctly and concisely, is to practice it. That’s what OSS does: it gives lots of examples of code and coding style for students to learn from (though it would be nice if OSS authors would occasionally add a comment or two).
    The second thing that OSS does is to lower the barrier to OPEN standards adoption. I’m old enough to have known the closed-systems world (that Apple seems intent on reinventing) where every company had proprietary products, that did not inter-operate and therefore tied customers in to one manufacturers or another’s range of products: from the training the operators required to the spec. of the printer paper. History has shown us that these closed systems were a BAD thing. They reduced competition, slowed development, increased costs and permitted exploitation. It’s no surprise that computers became ubiquitous after the open-architecture IBM PC was introduced and millions of companies all over the world could write software to run on it’s published standard hardware and use it’s freely available APIs. I feel that if IBM had invented the app-store back in 1981 and used it to control and vet what software could be run on PCs, we’d still be in the world of Windows 3.1 – though maybe without the viruses we so enjoy today.
    So. Those are the benefits I see arising from OSS. However they do not correlate highly with the examples cited of states and organisations that have adopted OSS to the levels Steve G would like to see in the UK. Even if we use the attributes of OSS in his own article, there is still a greater correlation with free cost/easy propagation/simple access than with the principles and virtues presented to us.

    So there we have it. OSS is good. It has benefits for the users and it honks off the big players. The advantages it gives to poor countries helps them use computers. It gives budding programmers a large code base to examine and learn from. However in a corporate environment, where risk-reduction is more important than cost, standardisation is cheaper than diversity and security comes from having control, the case for OSS is far from made. The OSS world has never really been able to crack the business world – simply because the hobbyists and amateurs who create the vast majority of OSS simply don’t understand corporate needs. If you don’t believe me, ask yourself: if you were a CFO would you be more likely to sign off a $10M project you know nothing about based on a product called Maverick Meerkat or one called Windows Server?

    Pete 2

    April 3, 2011 at 21:48

    • Pete,

      Thanks for the thoughts and the thoroughness of describing your position. I agree with you on many of the benefits of OSS that you’ve described. And, for any set of users/organisations there will be some variety in the reasons that bring them to OSS. However, I don’t agree with you about OSS in a business environment. It’s certainly true that if ‘risk management’ is your primary objective then continuing to pay for the devil you know is the safer option. But many businesses are under constant pressure to reduce costs, and there simply doing the ‘same old thing’ isn’t a good course. Moreover, there are lots of situations where risk management is not the primary objective, rather driving innovation is the more important item: and in this context I believe OSS has a lot to offer – Linux and of course Ubuntu!


      Steve George

      June 10, 2011 at 10:28

  5. Big government and punitive Taxes are destroying the UKs competitiveness.


    May 21, 2011 at 16:12

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