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Bristol councillor makes stand for open source

SoftwareNews
, 24 Sep 2010News

The political head of ICT at a city struggling to wrestle free of Microsoft has declared it will give up its open source ambitions “over my dead body”.

Mark Wright, the Bristol City councillor who handles the cabinet portfolio for ICT, made the stand at a political meeting in London yesterday.

Bristol's attempts to use open source software instead of Microsoft on its desktop computers have been hampered by the widespread use of proprietary Microsoft standards in Britain's public sector. But Wright said the council would not give up the fight.

“I was put in charge of IT in Bristol. I made it very clear to the department that we would retreat from open source over my dead body,” Wright told the Westminster eForum in London yesterday.

Bristol spent five years trying to use open source software on 5,500 desktop computers, but its staff became isolated and unproductive, as they were unable to use the Microsoft file formats used almost everywhere else in the UK.

The council couldn't even build compatibility with open standards into its own computer systems. “Suppliers continue to show reluctance or even refusal to consider functionality for other open file formats. Because of this a great many of our users can't do without Microsoft Office,” the councillor told government ICT experts at the meeting.

The council had hoped that the latest version of Open Office might overcome the compatibility problem, but discovered the world had moved on to Docx, the file format Microsoft launched in opposition to the standard open document format.

Bristol's subsequent capitulation was published on Wednesday, in the form of an IT strategy that requires at least £7.3m to be spent on 7,000 fully-serviced Microsoft desktops over the next five years.

Open source had nevertheless become a political goal in Bristol, declared Wright, a Liberal Democrat Councillor. And the council's choice of software had become more than a matter of cost and efficiency.

“We want the next generation to learn about other IT options and make sure they don't suffer from the kind of technology blindness that so many of the current generation suffer from,” he said of the council's aim to get more open source software in schools.

“We aim to promote open source across the city, as a way to close the digital divide between rich and poor, as a way to help small organisations cope with the budget cuts. In an era where there's no money left it really is a no-brainer that free software ought to be part of the solution,” he said.

The Government should mandate open standards. There would be nothing for anyone to lose bar those companies “making a killing” in a market protected by proprietary standards, he said.

Bristol has now changed its fighting style – trying to change the system rather than beat it. To this end, it was installing Open Office alongside Microsoft Office on every desktop computer.

“If any of our partners – voluntary sector or any other organisation that works with us - takes the decision to go to Open Office, they will never be afflicted with the compatibility and file sharing problems that we faced,” he said. “We will always be able to talk to them in their own language.”

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