Europe squares up to US in open source race

The US’s open source policies might be left in the dark if Ministers of the European Parliament (MEPs) get what they want, which is to make Europe the global leader for open source software. 

The digital race could be about who pushes the open source agenda first, which will have more direct benefits to a society growing more dependent on advances in software technology.

The European Commission came under pressure from MEPs recently when it attempted to renew a contract with Fujitsu for expensive Microsoft software, which will be used on 36,000 Commission-operated PCs, with a hefty bill of €48.9 million ($67.8 million). Many believe this is something that troubled Europe simply cannot afford.

The economic difficulties could benefit Europe in a different way, however, as it may drive widespread adoption of open source software.

“For nearly 10 years the Commission published at regular intervals its strategy for the internal use of [open source software]. The Commission is now reviewing the current version of its strategy document, which will be re-published once it is updated,” an EC statement read, suggesting that Europe plans to take recent developments in open source more seriously.

The European Union already has an open source strategy, which requires open source alternatives to mainstream proprietary software to be employed whenever a clear benefit can be expected. This rule has not been actively employed in the contested case of Microsoft software which has angered many in Europe hoping for a larger move to open source.

Despite the obvious financial benefit of using open source software there appears to be a reluctance among world governments to take that route. With budget cuts to social welfare and public spending, citizens are often dismayed to find out exactly how much is being spent on software that has free alternatives available. 

There appears to be a perception out there that open source software is inferior, but a number of free products like Microsoft Office contender OpenOffice and Google’s highly-successful Android operating system have questioned that view and shown that profit-driven projects are not always the best choice out there.

A likely reason for government refusal to switch to open source is close ties with many of the big companies they are buying the software from. In the world of politics, where tax incentives are offered to technology firms to keep them on side, it does not bode well to cut contracts that are extremely profitable to those companies. And yet it needs to be done, regardless of how those firms react, as the prices are simply unsustainable.

Another reason appears to be a general fear of change, even if the change is clearly significantly better and provides many long-term benefits. The UK government is a good example of this with its continued reluctance to upgrade its web browsers from IE6, which Microsoft itself admitted is dangerous. After mounting pressure the government eventually pledged to upgrade.

It seems that this is how changes in government policies around the world towards open source will happen, from citizens and politicians applying pressure, forcing those in power to recognise the shift from expensive closed software packages to free open source.

The European Union is making big steps to address how it approaches what it calls “the digital agenda”, and open source is a big part of that. While it may be weeks or months, or years before changes to its policies come into effect, it appears intent on beating at least some of the world by becoming a more technology aware entity.