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The Devil & The Big Blue Sea

In case you didn’t know, the true reason behind Bill Gates visit to London wasn’t the meeting with Chancellor Gordon Brown or even a Microsoft developers conference but an allegedly important briefing on personal development from Golden Globe winning comedian Ricky Gervais – otherwise known as David Brent - star of the popular Sitcom, ‘The Office’ and its forthcoming sequel, The Office 2004.

In search of further comic relief Mr Gates, soon to be Microsoft's 'First Knight', was scheduled to attend, the Chancellor’s ‘Entrepreneurs Summit’ and meet with the OGC’s Sir Peter Gershon and the NHS’s Richard Grainger.

At this point, the smiles may fade a little because both the OGC and the NHS are pursuing a vigorous form of collective bargaining that might defeat even David Brent. Many in government perceive Microsoft’s products as over-sexed, over-priced and over here and at the end of last year, I received a call from one well-connected individual who claimed that the power savings alone to the Public Sector in moving away from Windows have been calculated in the tens of millions.

The argument in Government circles is that environmentally friendly Penguin power might release enough budget to drive the improvements that Whitehall is looking for and perhaps balance the cost of the 61,000 mostly administrative staff taken on by the NHS in the year to June 2002. The Office of Government Commerce (OGC) also stands accused of lacking the appropriate level of political correctness in the ratio of Open Source to Windows solutions in government and MPs believe it needs to do more to achieve a level playing field, which has led to a series of dismally unimpressive trials of Open Source in local government, which led to Newham Council throwing in the towel before Christmas.

For Gates and Microsoft the message is quite clear and other Governments are now starting to tighten the policy screw on Microsoft’s pricing, two years after the Greeks described this as ‘unsustainable’ at the EU Hydra Conference in Nafpolion.

Sun Microsystems is now lobbying hard for a public sector breakthrough and it is no coincidence that Richard Barrington, who was Director of Industry at the Office of the e-Envoy, is now leading the charge now he is back at Sun.

Government is however caught between a devil of its own making and the deep blue sea. It is reasonable to assume that Microsoft is prepared to compromise to a level which offers Government a dramatic reduction in its total cost of ownership but this is unlikely to be as low as Sun or IBM and others can go in offering a Linux / Java desktop across the entire public sector.

What may be preventing Government from making any clear Open Source decision is fear of the unknown and not price. Government is conservative by nature and risk averse. It likes standards, it likes accountability and in general, given the outrageous costs of IT failures over the last five years, it is wary of the promises of the IT industry. A damning comment was made at Linux World this month. Jeremy White, a leading developer of Linux applications told an audience of network administrators.” It works 98 percent of the time. But it's the 2 percent of the time it doesn't that kills you" and even some of the Penguin’s biggest supporters admit that Linux has a long way to go before it can mount a credible alternative to Microsoft Windows.

As long as Bill Gates can bend with the wind and make concessions, I believe it is unlikely that we will see any dramatic public sector shift towards Open Source computing for at least three years. In that time, we will see a steady growth in the introduction of Open Source solutions but Windows will remain dominant. However, at some time, in the not too distant future, Government will have become more confident in what Open Source can offer and then not even the introduction of David Brent’s sales skills will sustain the near monopoly Microsoft enjoys in public sector computing today.


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