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When the Government becomes a Fanboy (but says they’re not)

There was an interesting debate in Parliament about computing last week. Does the UK Government favour Microsoft?

Fanboys come in two flavours: the committed and devoted user with no financial stake to protect, just the defence of their decision to use one solution or another as an expression of their ego or intellectual snobbery; and the hard-working industry professional whose very financial success and future rests on the adoption of the platform he not only supports wherever he can, but also actively peddles to the less technically able industry and government purchasers he is paid well to advise just because that system will over the long term guarantee him the most work.

When it comes to awarding government contracts in IT, one of the perversities is that because of the size of the projects, the government favours IT consultancies that are large in terms of money earned, and employees available. They ask the consultancies to identify the solutions, when the consultancies have a vested interest in presenting a case that favours the solution that benefits them most. To stay big, and therefore remain on the gravy train, they need lots of man hours to be billed out.

The government say they are of course looking for a cost effective solution, but pre-select the most expensive ones by filtering out those consultancies who did not grow big or become rich because the solutions they provided were cheaper, lasted longer without needing attention, and were more reliable over the long term so needed fewer man hours to be invested.

How can firms that get to be big enough to qualify to tender because they tend to bill lots of man hours be asked to identify the most cost-effective solutions? That’s an organisational oxymoron.

The raison d’etre of both firm and technicians within it is to generate man hours. They should never be asked to identify the solution, because they will always favour the expensive one and find a way to make a convincing presentation that supports their choice. A mechanic who only knows how to repair a Morris Marina will not tell his boss to buy a VW: after all, just because you can find lots of garages with lots of mechanics with experience mending Morris Marinas does not mean the Morris Marinas were trouble free. How would the mechanics get so much hands-on experience if Morris Marina’s were totally reliable cars?

What we need here is separation. Separation between solution selector, and solution provider. At the moment, critics are fighting the symptoms, not the causes. Asking for the solutions to be “more cost-effective” just means the reports the big consultancies produce address this issue as part of the many other issues they know the government consider to be important. Only by having the solution identified by someone or somebody with no possible future advantage from favouring one solution over another will this perversity be addressed.

This is what they did not so long ago with the big accountancy firms. Their auditing and consulting arms were joined at the hip, and this gave each an unfair advantage to the detriment of investors. So the firms were told to separate their two halves, which they did. Now we need the big IT consultancies to do the same: they are too much in bed with Microsoft, and so it is no surprise that their solutions suffer from code bloat, setback, cost-overrun and lack of reliability. They do, however, produce lots of man hours.

Surprise, surprise. Who’d have thought that would happen?

But why do the critics suggest the UK government is a Microsoft fanboy? Dr Pugh MP (LibDem) said “The alternative (to Open Source and small company solutions), which applies across many Departments, is the tendency to have memorandums of understanding with big companies, often foreign and usually American. There is a close association between that side of the industry and the Government—an association that is personal, consultative and advisory. The House will be aware that the former Prime Minister launched the Labour business manifesto at Microsoft. Hon. Members will also be aware that, on the International Business Advisory Council formed by the current Prime Minister, there sits the owner and founder of Microsoft.”

You can certainly hear Microsoft’s own sales training manual coming out of the mouths of babes over and over again, such as in this defence of their position by Treasury Minister, Angela Eagle MP: “It is often suggested that open source solutions offer better value because they are cheaper to buy. In fact, the total cost of ownership is considered in procurement, and it is not always the case that the open source solutions are the cheapest.”

Well, it does depend a lot on who does the study. And if they consider hardware and software together or separately. Let’s face it, Windows programs and applications are not exactly intuitive, are they? There are considerable training costs associated with these too, although admittedly a lot of this familiarisation goes on at school. Yes, the good old Education budget subsidises the training cost of future Microsoft related solutions. I bet they don’t add in this cost to the analysis of doing business with Microsoft products, services, or applications – although they do seem to unfairly add in such costs as extras in the TCO calculations for training on the alternative Open Source or Mac solutions.

Angela Eagle goes on “Although they are free of licence charges, because they can involve high levels of support and training costs, they sometimes do not provide the best value for money. External studies have not shown a consistent cost advantage to open source solutions over proprietary solutions. It is often bandied about when such issues are debated that proprietary solutions are necessarily more expensive than open source solutions, but we have yet to prove that. Some of the figures of potential Government savings from the wholesale adoption of open source that are being bandied about are not taking into account the extra support costs over the lifetime of the project.”

Now, where have I heard that line before? In reality, Total Cost of Ownership studies have clearly shown that buying computers that use the Windows platform is the most expensive long-term option, especially when compared to the purchase of Apple Mac computers. Linux based solutions in some situations can be even better, although for commercial use the lack of a single responsible party to talk to does undermine the uptake of the various distributions somewhat.

But then, another perversity pops up. Dr Pugh again: “inside the Palace of Westminster I can no longer use an Apple Mac computer to surf the internet, which the Parliamentary Information and Communications Technology department has said is because of security, although it has never actually explained how.”

Perhaps they really mean that Apple Macs are so secure that the security services cannot snoop on them as easily as they can on the Windows computers that now have to be used. That wasn’t the decision of the government though, nor of Parliament itself, but a small committee called the “Information” Committee. They never did provide the information, just the secret lockout.

Were they nobbled? It wouldn’t be the first time Microsoft have successfully altered the composition of a body judging them – they even got the Judge changed to one more to their liking in their monopoly trial in the US when it was rumoured the Judge who found them guilty of abusing their monopoly favoured splitting Microsoft up into separate Operating System and Applications entities. The new Judge was more lenient. Quelle surprise.

Where the Government and Microsoft are concerned, there are lots of secrets – and lots for the rest of us to be worried about. For instance, the seemingly preferential treatment Microsoft are getting over IT in the NHS. Dr Pugh again: “I would like to believe the Government when they tell me that they have an efficient deal with Microsoft in relation to Connecting to Health, but I am less than happy that the details of the deal are subject to a confidentiality clause.”

Is it confidential because Microsoft do not want to be prosecuted for illegal restraint of Trade, for again abusing their monopoly power, because of pork belly politics, or because the contract was bought so cheaply the EU competition commission would see it as an abuse of monopoly, trade “dumping”, or illegal state subsidy?

We are right to be suspicious. Dr Pugh reminds us that “during the court case against Microsoft, Judge Jackson in the US Department of Justice said—I would not have put it in such a way, as he said things that are quite damning—that Microsoft’s executives had

“proved time and time again to be inaccurate, misleading, evasive, and transparently false…Microsoft is a company with an institutional disdain for both the truth and for rules of law that lesser entities must respect. It is also a company whose senior management is not averse to offering specious testimony to support spurious defenses to claims of its wrongdoing.” ”

What chance has Open Source with the British government if they don’t even practice Open Government, particularly with such partners? And how will anyone be able to see if there is any skullduggery involved? The press make a big thing about contracts to Saudi Arabia over arms deals with hidden payoffs from private companies who just happen to be British, but nobody kicks up a stink when UK taxpayer’s money is spent by our own Government without us being able to see exactly how.

There should be no confidentiality clauses on large deals. The bigger the deal, the easier it is to “launder” some money for some pork belly scheme or another, and the more concerned we should be about where our money is going.

I am quite prepared to believe that many politicians really do want a level playing field, but what about the civil service? All those Sir Humphrey Applebys… they don’t like change, they do like monoliths. They tell the politicians what to say. And they like little advisory jobs after retirement.

I bet they love Microsoft. Maybe the fanboys are the real power behind the throne?

“Yes, Prime Minister.”

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