The UK government has finally updated its policy on the use of open-source software [pdf] and has broadly given it the thumbs up.

Following a range of assessments by the central procurement agency, the Office of Government Commerce (OGC), its resulting report cites a number of advantages on the server side of open source and also points to growing maturity on the desktop front.

The OGC reported progress in products such as OpenOffice and StarOffice for "transactional workers" but stopped short of recommending it for "knowledge" or "power users" who require more advanced capabilities. However, it pointed out that 85 percent to 90 percent of the desktop users at the trial sites were transactional users who could do their jobs with basic word processing, e-mail and spreadsheet tools, so the implications may be far-reaching.

"The desktop end of the market has matured a lot in the last 12 months and we are not sure we are there yet, but it has made great strides," said Martin Day, spokesman for the OGC.

In addition to its maturing functionality, open source software has related benefits in terms of hardware, since it requires less memory and a slower processor speed for the same functionality offered by proprietary applications, the report said.

The positive assessment of the desktop products may lend added weight to the open source cause, which has gained increased recognition by public sector agencies that often lack cash and may be looking for a lower-cost alternative to proprietary software.

"Coming from the influential OGC, this is undoubtedly a boost for open source software in the UK, where until recently interest has lagged that in many other European countries," Ovum analyst Eric Woods wrote in an assessment of the report.

However, the OGC's endorsement was not without its caveats. It warned that user migration and inter-operability of complex files are still problems. "Change is always daunting for people and we need a solution that requires as little retraining as possible," Day said.

Coincidentally, the OGC report comes as the agency is finalising a three-year extension to its memorandum of understanding (MoU) with Microsoft - which has enjoyed a long-time partnership with the UK government. Day emphasised, however, that the MoU offers government organisations the option of Microsoft software at a good price and does not mean that agencies are tied into using Windows.

"That's why we offer MoUs rather than doing-business deals that require us to buy a certain volume of software," Day said. "What we are doing is encouraging public sector bodies to consider all solutions."

Microsoft responded to the report by saying it understands it is the government's role to "promote a level playing field and to foster increased competition in any market". However, the report's findings "do not align fully" with feedback it gets from its customers, it said.

Advantages of open source on the server side, including lower cost and strong performance, have been well documented, by both government and private sector organizations, the OGC noted. And while open source desktop alternatives have not had the same support, the OGC report indicates theysoon could have.

On the other hand, open source business applications are limited and still generally immature, the OGC said. The applications that do exist are more appropriate for small or medium-size businesses than large public sector bodies, as they "lack industrial strength".

The open source pilots were run at various government agencies earlier this year, using software from IBM and Sun.

While the agency concluded that "open source software is a viable and credible alternative to proprietary software for infrastructure implementations, and for meeting the requirements of the majority of desktop users," it recommended that agencies assess migration issues, the development of skills for implementation and support and interoperability issues before adoption.