A UK police advisory body, the PITO (Police Information Technology Organisation), has launched a three-month study to consider the possibility of using the Linux operating system on all police force desktops, the PITO said yesterday.

"There is no commitment towards Linux just yet, but we liked it enough to look into the possibility of using it on what we estimate to be 60,000 desktops throughout the police forces in England and Wales," said PITO spokeswoman Isabell Davies.

The PITO is a government agency that is charged with providing IT, communication systems and services to the police as well as other criminal justice organisations.

It has contracted Netproject — an association of user organisations including Royal & Sun Alliance, Nationwide Building Society, National Grid and government departments — to carry out the Linux usability tests as part of a larger study called Project Valiant, Davies said.

The police are currently using either Microsoft's Windows NT or Window 2000 on their desktops and the study is looking at the possibility of using Microsoft software as well, Davies said.

"One of the reasons we are looking at Linux is because it is an open standard which is something we were interested in. At this stage of the study, we are trying to establish whether Linux is mature or stable enough to potentially meet police service needs. We are expecting the study results by the end of March," she said.

But though the PITO is waiting for Netproject's report to make a final decision on its own move to Linux, Netproject officials already seem convinced that a move to Linux would be beneficial.

"The move to Linux is inevitable. Windows with XP licensing has made life a lot easier [for Linux advocates]. The total cost of ownership for Linux is 20 percent of what it costs for Windows," said Eddie Bleasdale, managing director at Netproject as well as an e-business security consultant.

PCs configured with Linux can be made highly secure with user identification technology such as smart cards and biometrics, he said. The software can also be updated over the network, Bleasdale added.

The police aren't the only government agency thinking about making the switch from Microsoft to alternative forms of desktop software.

Both the Society of Information Technology Management, the group representing local government IT workers, and the Office of Government Commerce, which is representing the government on a national level, have been in negotiations with Microsoft over new software licensing terms.