Apple/IBM tie-up provides historic counterpoint to Microsoft's massive job cuts

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Sometimes news stories coincide fortuitously in a way that highlights the significance of major trends transforming the IT landscape - and we have a big one this week.

Yesterday, Apple and IBM announced a partnership that will see the biggest name in corporate IT developing enterprise-focused tools to support the biggest name in consumer technology for its customers.

IBM will resell Apple products and open up its global partner network to the combined product set - giving Apple a corporate IT veneer it has previously lacked and rarely shown any interest in developing.

The very next day, Microsoft laid off 18,000 people as a result of its acquisition of Nokia.

The historical resonances stretch back over 30 years, to when IBM and Microsoft jointly created the IBM PC and desktop computing transformed the IT world as a result. The big loser from that deal? Apple - then an emerging player in personal computing that subsequently fell on hard times as Microsoft's DOS/Windows software licensing model, hardware neutrality and partner ecosystem left the Mac as a niche product.

Thirty years later, Microsoft's increasingly desperate attempts to protect its Windows Phone business led to buying Nokia, its only dedicated smartphone partner, at a time when Nokia's smartphone sales were falling through the floor.

Apple is on the offensive - making its first tie-up with one of the traditional giants of corporate IT, helping IBM to offer mobile and cloud-based IT products and services based on the most popular smartphone and tablet technologies used in businesses today.

Microsoft meanwhile is struggling to protect its position in mobile, and under a new CEO starting to preach a "cloud-first, mobile-first" strategy that it hopes will reverse its declining influence on end-user computing.

Satya Nadella has chosen his words carefully to not be overtly criticising his predecessor Steve Ballmer, but his plans are an almost total rejection of the previous "devices and services" strategy.

Microsoft has even realised that it has no future as a Windows-centric supplier. Its cloud service is now just Azure, no longer Windows Azure. Office is available for the iPad - and being relentlessly and successfully promoted by Microsoft executives.

You could equally argue that IBM needs Apple a lot more than Microsoft needed Nokia. IBM has been late to the party on cloud, while Azure has established itself as the second biggest cloud service - although well behind market leader Amazon Web Services.

Both suppliers realise that users - both consumer and professional - will be using mobile devices connected to cloud services as the primary way to access personal and corporate applications.

IT leaders will have to assess which offering - Apple devices plus IBM cloud, or Microsoft cloud plus Nokia devices - is best suited to their corporate environment. Although of course, without the Windows lock-in that has kept so many IT managers tied to Microsoft for years, there's no reason they can't choose almost any other combination of Apple/Android devices with anybody else's cloud. Who knows, they might even choose Windows Phone.

Old partnerships are being re-written. There will be some very big losers. The biggest winners will be the IT leaders who make the most of these dramatically shifting sands.

The government has finally been forced to admit that the business case for the troubled Universal Credit programme has still not been signed off - despite repeated assurances that approval was imminent.

The business case is required to confirm the spending needed to see the welfare reform programme through to completion. The Treasury will not sign off the project and release funding until all aspects have been checked and approved by the various Whitehall authorities - not least the Major Projects Authority (MPA) and the Government Digital Service (GDS) whose intervention early last year led to the project being reviewed and eventually "reset" in September 2013.

The admission came in a Public Accounts Committee (PAC) meeting yesterday when, pressed by PAC chair Margaret Hodge, the head of the civil service Sir Bob Kerslake said the business case had yet to be signed off.

Hodge had been pressing Kerslake and his fellow senior civil servants, asking them four times whether the approval had been given, and receiving classic "Sir Humphrey" answers in return, before Kerslake finally bit the bullet and said: "I think we should not beat about the bush. It has not been signed off."

That statement came after much beating about the bush, for example:

Hodge: "Is it [Universal Credit] on track now?"

Sir Jeremy Heywood: "In its current form, I believe it is."

Hodge: "What do you mean, 'In its current form'?"

Heywood: "That is something we look at very carefully."

Hodge: "I just want to get one answer to the question. Have you signed off the business case?"

Sir Nicolas Macpherson: "On universal credit? I think the Treasury have discussed this quite frequently. I believe that at each key milestone of the reset programme there is a Treasury decision to take."

Hodge: "Have you signed it off?"

Macpherson: "It is signed up, up to a point; up to the point...Up to the milestones."

Hodge: "I do want an answer. I want just a yes or no. Has it been signed off or not?"

Heywood: "I cannot speak [for] the Treasury."
At this point, Kerslake folded and gave the answer Hodge wanted and most people have suspected for some time. He went on to add: "We have had a set of conditional assurances about progress and the Treasury has released money accordingly. That is one of the key controls they have"

So in other words, money to fund Universal Credit is only being released in small chunks for clearly defined sets of work, until the Treasury and its advisers have the confidence that the Department for Work and Pensions (DWP) isn't going to make the same cock-up it did before. And they don't yet have that confidence.

The obfuscation around Universal Credit continues to amaze. DWP statements continue to confirm the project is on track - and who knows, it might well be? But nobody fully trusts those statements given the track record the department has on denying problems in the project.

Just last month, the National Audit Office (NAO) warned that it is still not convinced of the DWP's ability to deliver.

"It is clear that the department still has much to do to address all the concerns raised [about Universal Credit] and to ensure it delivers value for money," the watchdog said in its latest DWP financial report.

The second-hand whispers coming out of the DWP - and I stress these are from people who tell me they know people, rather than direct inside sources - say that the digital team under Kevin Cunnington are doing a good job in developing the "end-state" digital system that will eventually form the basis of the system that goes live by 2017 to support the full roll-out.

But that digital system has yet to be tested in anger - not until the Autumn is it due to be tried out on 100 real-life claimants.

We know that the NAO is going to review Universal Credit again before next year's general election, and until then we will no doubt continue on a combination of leaks, speculation, and yet more blind DWP optimism. That NAO review is undoubtedly going to determine what happens to the project after the election.

Labour has already said it will pause the programme if it wins the election. You can be sure the Tories would have a serious rethink too, especially if the NAO finds further problems. And an election victory for David Cameron would also give him a timely excuse to take the much criticised secretary of state, Iain Duncan Smith, away from the project (and the DWP) completely.

In the meantime, we are left picking through the civil-service speak and the obfuscations and the misdirections to find the truth. And let's remember - this was the flagship reform programme for a government that declared it would be the most open and transparent in history.

To every male IT leader - it is your responsibility to get more women into IT

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Congratulations to the 25 most influential women in UK IT - our annual list was announced yesterday, and it contains some amazing, high-achieving individuals (who happen to be women).

The event at which we announced the list - attended this year by 120 of the most senior and successful women in UK IT, every one a role model in their own right - is a fantastic afternoon. It has an atmosphere and an energy entirely different to the male-dominated, men-in-suits events that are so commonplace in technology.

But with only 16% of the UK IT profession being female - a statistic that continues to shame the industry - it is all too difficult to get a more balanced and diverse set of delegates to most IT conferences.

After last year's event, I wrote a post on this blog with 10 things that men need to do to help get more women into IT. There's a growing realisation that no amount of women in IT networking events or female role models or encouraging girls at school to consider a career in IT, will change the status quo.

The only way to make a change is if the men in IT make it happen - and that was the theme of this year's event.

We heard from three male IT leaders - James Evans, director of IT strategy and enterprise architecture at BP; James Robbins, CIO at Northumbrian Water; and Kevin Gallagher, CIO of Channel 4 - each of whom has positively targeted a more diverse workforce in their IT teams. Every one of them talked about the benefits that more female representation has brought to their organisations - the diverse set of skills that add to and complement those of their male colleagues.

But those three are sadly rare exceptions. It is all too common to hear male IT leaders say, "Of course I understand why there should be more women in IT, but at the end of the day, does it really matter? I have a great team, does it matter that they are nearly all men?"

It's an easy statement to make, and one that reflects the unconscious bias present to varying degrees in us all.

But it does matter.

We have a large and growing skills shortage that is the biggest single threat to the future success of the UK's digital economy. We will not fill that gap with men alone - and nor should we want to.

Some of our speakers talked about the fact that women now influence the majority of consumer technology purchases - laptops, smartphones, tablets - yet remain vastly under-represented in the companies that design, manufacture and sell those products. Our event sponsor, Microsoft, talked about the efforts it is making to redress that balance internally.

The digital revolution is not gender specific - digital technology is changing the way all of us live and work. But digital cannot deliver its full potential if it is specified, designed, built, managed and supported by a professional group that reflects the characteristics of only half the population.

James Evans from BP said that one of the keys to the energy giant's successful diversity policy was the commitment from the very top of the company.

That same principle applies to IT. To every CIO or IT leader who has responsibility for recruitment, talent management, skills, or staff promotions - the reason it matters is because you have to set the example.

It will be hard work - it will make recruitment harder, for example, but how will recruitment agencies change unless you tell them you want a quota for CVs from women?

It has to start from somewhere. Male IT leaders - it is time you took the lead. No more excuses.

Labour's digital rhetoric is increasingly positive towards GDS

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Labour MP Jon Cruddas gave a speech this week that was barely reported in the press, but contained his party's most significant statements yet about the role of digital and technology in a potential future Labour government.

Cruddas may not be a household name, but he is the co-ordinator for Labour's wide-ranging policy review, which will feed into the party's manifesto for next year's general election.

Part of that review is a look at digital government, led by Chi Onwurah, the shadow minister for digital government.

The early days of Onwurah's review spooked a lot of people with implied criticisms of the Government Digital Service (GDS). It seemed that Labour saw GDS as a Tory creation, and as such was not to be trusted. But that rhetoric has changed significantly.

In his speech, Cruddas instead suggested an even more influential role for GDS.

"Labour will share more power and responsibility with people," he said.

"Increasing the power of local places by building collaboration amongst public services and organisations, and pooling funds to stop inefficiency and avoid duplication; Developing the Government Digital Service to drive change across government - standardising data, improving sharing between departments and encouraging innovation."
That's a powerful endorsement for the future of GDS.

But Cruddas' speech also gave insights into the central role that digital could play in wider politics and policy-making. He said:

"Our traditional tools of policy making-money and top down government regulation stifle people's agency and initiative, and are too often ineffective. Parties will need to build networks to connect with the great array of small-scale innovations in society that are pioneering new directions for policy. In the future reform will need to engage more with people's behaviour and cultures and will mean mobilising people on the ground for change. The internet is changing the nature of the public sphere. It can be used to rebalance power between citizens and the market and between citizens and the state, but we will address the problems of concentrations of power, child safety, privacy and data security."
Here are a few other relevant excerpts:

"A post-industrial economy is taking shape around our advanced manufacturing and the new information and communications technologies. The shift to a services economy is flattening out old, hierarchical command and control structures. Digital technology is unseating whole industries and workforces, and production is becoming more networked and disorganised. Our class system is being reconstructed. The disruption of technological change is greater than at any times since the industrial revolution."

"We are just at the start of the internet revolution. Radical innovations in the generation, processing and transmission of information, will continue modernising the whole base of our economy. New services, products and markets will mean more knowledge, prosperity and opportunity. The web is breaking down barriers. Digital technology has transformed startup costs and it has never been easier to start and run your own business."

"Our political parties cannot keep up with our complex and fast changing society. In the new economy, politics will be about innovation and participation; about networks, not hierarchies."

"Just as in the age of steam and the age of the railways, our new digital age is radically changing society. But while rail transformed society it also created opportunities for the robber barons to monopolise and control it for their own good. We have to tackle concentrations of power, and make sure people have the skills and the abilities to take advantage of the internet. In the vanguards of the new economy there is a new productive force which is the 'life of the mind'. There are new kinds of raw materials - the intangible assets of information, sounds, words, images, ideas - and they are produced in creative, emotional and intellectual labour. New models of production are using consumers and their relationships in the co-inventing of new ideas, products and cultural meaning. People no longer just want to consume the culture and products handed to them. Technology, from computer aided design to the new 3D printing, will provide individuals with the means to actively create culture and to pursue creative forms of labour. Individuals will be able to design and make the things they live with."
You can read the whole speech here.

That is perhaps the most digitally-aware and technology-positive speech I've heard from a top-level politician. If that sort of thinking feeds through into the Labour manifesto, it can only be a positive step.

Better still, you have to hope that if Labour start to use that sort of language more often - and in speeches that get more widely reported - it will prompt a response from the Conservative Party and raise the importance of digital in the whole election debate.

It has been a Tory government, after all, that has led the digital drive through GDS.

The IT community awaits the outcome of the Labour digital government review with interest. But we should all do what we can to encourage every party to be open and detailed about what our digital future means in a government under their leadership.

Dear HP, Microsoft (and others) - stop bleating, start competing

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There's an interesting story in The Independent today that highlights the issue I wrote about on this blog last week - about the Cabinet Office policy of trying to make the old "oligopoly" of big IT suppliers change their behaviour by breaking contracts into smaller chunks and forcing them to compete with smaller rivals.

The Indie claims that HP has written to the Treasury to complain about the cap on contract sizes - the Cabinet Office "red lines" policy that rejects any IT contract worth more than £100m unless there is an exceptional reason to do so.

The story claims that HP is effectively threatening to pull out of bidding for government deals if it is no longer worth bidding for them, due to the apparent preference for smaller IT suppliers.

The Independent also remarks - without any revelations or new facts - about Microsoft's ongoing attempts to prevent the government from adopting its proposed policy for open document formats - one that does not include Microsoft's mostly proprietary formats for Word and Excel.

Microsoft has continued to heavily lobby government about that policy since the consultation closed, and you can only assume that the delays in confirming that policy may be linked to a consideration of what legal means Microsoft might be willing to resort to if the policy does not change in its favour.

If some of the things I've heard privately about the extent of that lobbying are true (I'm trying to confirm!) you would be shocked at the lengths Microsoft is going to.

Both these examples are further evidence that the old oligopoly simply does not get what is going on in government IT.

The Cabinet Office and the Government Digital Service are not trying to deliberately exclude them from winning IT contracts - they just want them to change their ways so they compete on a level-playing field, one where their sheer size and scale is not a factor in winning, but where their capability, flexibility and competitiveness is.

Government CTO Liam Maxwell is right when he says that public sector IT does not have to be big or unique. Those old perceptions were what caused the bloated, over-costly, over-complex IT estate that holds back change in Whitehall today.

Whitehall still needs HP and Microsoft, and the other Big IT firms, but it wants them to compete on the buyer's terms, not the supplier's. Big IT's continued bleating about their cosy status quo being removed only serves to reinforce the reasons why that status quo had to be broken down in the first place.

If those suppliers want to continue to play a major role in government IT, the answer is simple - stop bleating, start competing.







Big IT vs SME IT in government - it's really about changing IT suppliers' behaviour

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The Cabinet Office plan to bring in more SME IT suppliers and reduce dependence on the old "oligopoly" of big systems integrators (SIs) was always going to come under greater scrutiny once some of those SIs saw their lucrative outsourcing deals come to an end.

The Financial Times ran a strange article recently featuring unattributed claims that ministers including business secretary Vince Cable were telling David Cameron that the pro-SME IT policy was wrong, after his department suffered email problems soon after it transitioned away from a Fujitsu mega-outsourcing deal.

The story claimed that the email and network issues were down to moving away from a single supplier to multiple smaller suppliers, using the "tower" model now recommended by the Government Digital Service (GDS), whereby several suppliers are contracted for different elements of the service, under an over-arching "service integrator" (which could also be the in-house IT team).

The Cabinet Office countered that the deals that replaced Fujitsu saved many millions of pounds.

Former government IT chief Alan Mather wrote a very good put-down of that story here.

My instinct was similar to Mather's - that the story smacked of a leak from the ejected incumbent after losing its 15-year outsourcing relationship with the departments in question. But that's purely speculation - I have no evidence to suggest that is the case.

Contract transition is never easy and rarely straightforward - as Fujitsu itself is extremely well placed to confirm. The supplier, which was paid £415,393,510 by the government in 2013, according to the Institute for Government - was thrown off a £300m DWP desktop support contract in 2011 barely a year after taking over from HP, after it failed to meet its transition targets.

Fujitsu and the DWP are still in legal dispute over the cancellation of the deal. So any SI would therefore be correct to point out that contract transitions are risky business.

But that FT story was just part of a theme that is growing fast as the 2015 general election approaches - you can absolutely sense that SIs that have seen their new business from government decline in recent years have their eye on a change of government and hope it brings a re-embracing of "Big IT".

That's not to say those SIs have been struggling for cash - that Institute for Government report shows that six IT providers took home £4.6bn between them from the public purse in 2012.

But the Cabinet Office "red lines" that prevent any IT deals above £100m in total value, and encourage 50% of spending to go to smaller IT firms, mean that new business has been harder to come by.

There has been plenty of bleating about this of course - "They'll learn, they can't do IT in government without us", that sort of thing - so there was always going to be a backlash.

In the next couple of years many of the biggest outsourcing deals in government are up for renewal - not least the £850m a year HM Revenue & Customs (HMRC) contract with the Capgemini-led Aspire consortium (which also includes Fujitsu).

HMRC has already said it will not sign another mega-deal with a single supplier, and government CTO Liam Maxwell has repeatedly promised that none of the other existing outsourcing deals will be renewed or replaced by a single supplier.

So it is no surprise if there is plenty of spin as the first of those old deals is passed instead to several smaller companies. Anything to stop the strategy in its tracks before the really big deals come up for grabs.

But there are concerns from many observers - this one included - that Labour is courting those big SIs - and being courted by them in return.

Chi Onwurah, Labour's shadow minister for digital government - and kudos to Labour for having a shadow minister for digital government - told me at the launch of Labour's digital government review in March that it was an "exaggeration" to say that big IT suppliers are "the bogeymen of IT". While Labour supports competition and creating opportunities for SMEs, she said that large suppliers "shouldn't be locked out, but neither should they be locked in".

Some people have taken that as evidence that Labour will invite back in the big SIs that - let's be honest - served them so badly when they were last in power.

Computer Weekly blogger and former Conservative Technology Forum chairman Philip Virgo wrote this week that the suppliers "who have run UK public sector ICT for the past 20 years still expect to be able to recoup their recent losses after a Labour victory" in the election.

After reading this, Onwurah described Virgo's claim as "scaremongering" on Twitter. It seems Labour are sensitive to such suggestions, as well they should be.

My view is that the current government have been absolutely right to hammer the big SIs for their complacency and for their cosy relationships over too many years. There is no doubt that government has spent too much on IT for too long, and made its IT far more complex than it ever needed to be.

Of course, government takes its share of the blame for that - the Civil Service outsourced its IT expertise and left itself vulnerable to suppliers who will, inevitably, look to make as much money as they reasonably (and sometimes unreasonably) can.

The best change that GDS has introduced is to re-skill government IT and to place the emphasis back onto bringing in the best digital and IT management staff that it can. Forget Labour's attitude to suppliers - the real scandal would be if they reversed that recruitment policy. I've seen no suggestions that they will.

But the reason the big SIs deserve that hammering is not because they no longer deserve to win any government contracts. It is because they have not changed their behaviour, or seen any need to do so - and I think that behind all the rhetoric from the likes of Liam Maxwell and Cabinet Office minister Francis Maude, that is the real agenda.

Those suppliers showed no evidence of changing, nor of recognising that they had to change, so they had to be shocked into doing so.

They have to compete on a level-playing field - not one in which contracts are so big and requirements so complex that there are never more than a handful of companies capable of competing for the deal.

If Fujitsu or HP or Capgemini or Atos or IBM or Accenture or anyone else can prove they are the best supplier to meet government needs, they will continue to win contracts. But those contracts will be smaller, more tightly defined, and (hopefully) better managed by the Whitehall departments that pay the bills.

That's not easy for a lot of big SIs whose business model and budgeting is predicated on a small number of very large, long-term contracts. But they need to work out how to make money from multiple, smaller deals - and deals which may only last two or three years, not the five, 10 or 15 they used to.

The "Big IT" versus "SME IT" argument is a smokescreen and if the Cabinet Office policy lasts, it should eventually become redundant anyway.

What really matters is genuine competition, with government sourcing IT products and services from the best suppliers for the job, without commercial or technical lock-in, without undue complexity or cost, in a broad and diverse supplier universe that best serves the needs of taxpayers.

If the old oligopoly is ready to win business in that world, they don't need to spin stories or lobby Labour. They just need to focus on their customer's needs, and deliver.

Invest in the UK's IT heartland to secure the future of our digital economy

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It's the first ever London Technology Week this week, an apparent attempt to make tech a part of the capital's international trendy calendar alongside the likes of London Fashion Week and London Film Festival.

It has certainly grabbed some headlines - when was technology ever the front-page lead of the London Evening Standard? But it has also shot itself in the foot with some rather ambitious claims that struggle to stand up to scrutiny.

Sky News was one of the first to point out that claims about the number of tech jobs created in London were hugely overblown when it broadened "tech" to include anything from TV production companies to PR and marketing agencies.

Similarly, a claim by organisers that London would create 11,000 new tech businesses in the next decade along with 46,000 new jobs, were questioned by some observers due to the paucity of supporting data to back up those numbers.

But in many ways it is never a bad thing to see technology being promoted as essential to the UK's economic future and job creation. My frustration is that the focus on London, and on the tech startup scene - for all the good things associated with it - miss the real point.

Let's say that London Technology Week's figure of 46,000 new digital technology jobs in 10 years is correct.

That means an average of 4,600 jobs a year. That's a grand total of 0.4% of the IT professionals currently employed in the UK.

According to industry skills body e-Skills UK, we need 129,000 new entrants into IT and telecoms jobs every year, with a growth rate twice the national average. Those 4,600 London startup jobs each year account for just 3.6% of those new roles.

The people who are going to be the core of the digital economy are not working in Tech City startups - much as we need those startups to grow and succeed. The heartland of the UK's economic future based on technology are the 1.2 million people working as IT professionals in IT departments across the private, public and third sectors and in established IT suppliers.

These are the tech experts that are already revolutionising the high street with multichannel retail systems; putting mobile banking in our pockets; delivering internet connectivity and web sites that occupy more and more of our time and money.

This is where the source of the UK's digital future lies. But we don't see them being celebrated, nor do we see politicians keen to associate themselves with the real heartland of UK IT.

Yet it is in this heartland we face the biggest risk to the digital economy - the growing lack of suitable skills and people to support the IT-enabled economy.

There are lots of good initiatives aimed at addressing the skills gap in the long term - overhauling the computing curriculum in schools; encouraging more girls and women to enter IT; and the tech startup scene itself that attracts a younger, funkier, trendier crowd.

But none of those initiatives will bear fruit for 10 years. By that time, if we don't have the digital skills base the UK needs, most of the growth opportunity of the next decade will already have been lost.

More and more IT leaders are reporting difficulties in attracting talent with the skills they need. One very senior government IT chief told me recently that he has no shortage of CVs on his desk - but from people with old skills in ageing ERP software and such like, that do not meet his needs.

The digital opportunity for the UK is clear to everyone and of interest to everyone - in business, politics and the media, as London Technology Week has demonstrated.

But the problem that needs to be addressed is immediate - the training and re-training of new and existing IT professionals to grow the digital skills of the future.

Once the recession hit, training budgets were the first to go. There seems little evidence they have returned yet. This is the issue the government and big business really need to tackle.

Ironically, it's government IT that is taking the lead. Recognising the shortage of skills to support its digital by default agenda, even the much-criticised Department for Work and Pensions has taken the initiative, setting up its own Digital Academy to retrain staff. Some local authorities are doing the same.

Business need to put money back into training their IT staff for the future - and government needs to help. Attractive tax breaks for training in digital skills would make a great incentive - and remember too, that it's not just IT experts that need those skills; digital awareness is going to be vital to every part of the business, from sales to manufacturing to the boardroom itself.

So yes - let's join in with London Technology Week in celebrating the UK's digital success stories and promoting the importance of technology to the UK's economic future.

But let's also remember that it's the UK's existing IT professionals that will secure that digital future, and let's invest in their future for the sake of our economy.

Can social science save the web?

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Pretty much every week these days you can expect a story in Computer Weekly on one of two topics: the growing importance and influence of the web to business and economic development; and the growing threats to the web from cyber attacks, surveillance, or the possible demise of net neutrality.

Just this month, the respected Economist Intelligence Unit, for example, forecast that cloud computing will revolutionise business just as much as the advent of computing itself.

Meanwhile, the US and China launched tit-for-tat accusations over who is cyber snooping on whom the most.

Web inventor Sir Tim Berners-Lee started something of a meme earlier this year when, at the 25th anniversary of his creation of the web, he called for a Magna Carta for the internet - an international bill of rights to protect the web from vested interests.

Berners-Lee's call was welcomed by media, web companies and internet rights groups, but by a wall of silence from big business and many governments.

The truth is that nobody really knows what's going to happen next - that's the reality of revolutions, and the digital revolution is no different. We all instinctively want the web to continue its democratic, interconnected, organic, multi-stakeholder development; but we equally feel the insidious tentacles of unencumbered capitalism, state surveillance, and illiberal nations spreading their influence.

What we lack is a base of evidence that allows us to make intelligent forecasts to say that if X happens, then the end result will be Y.

Could this be where social science saves the web?

Dame Wendy Hall, a close friend of Berners-Lee, a fellow web pioneer, and also one of (if not the) leading computer science academics in the UK, is spearheading an initiative that may help us find out.

Hall is a co-founder of the Web Science Institute at the University of Southampton. She coined the term "web science" as long ago as 2006, to define the overlap between studies in technology and social sciences - particularly sociology, economics and philosophy, topics previously considered the bedrock of political science.

Along with co-founders Berners-Lee and fellow Southampton professor, Sir Nigel Shadbolt, who also chairs the Open Data Institute, Hall hopes that web science researchers can provide that body of evidence to shape the future of the web and maintain its open, creative, collaborative nature.

"The aim of the web science discipline is to try to create the evidence that people need to understand these issues," she told Computer Weekly at an event this week.

"It will never be black and white. But you can collect and share evidence, analyse it and visualise it, so we can re-present it to government and big business to help them make those decisions."

The UK government CTO Liam Maxwell - this week appointed a visiting professor at Southampton University, so giving him access to the work of its web scientists - called it "situational awareness".  That may be a somewhat military term, but it summarises well what we currently lack if we are to defend what Berners-Lee calls "The web we want" empirically rather than emotionally.

Of course, such research takes time - longer than the pace of change on the web. But improving our understanding of the interaction between the internet and society, how the two shape and influence each other, and how that interaction is changing the way we live, is essential to ensuring technology can deliver the enormous potential that still remains to be realised - and so avoid the doomsday, Big Brother scenarios that have recently seemed all too feasible an outcome.

Russia invests £2.8bn to deliver 10Mbps fibre broadband across the country

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Earlier this week, I was in Moscow, visiting the Skolkovo Innovation Centre, Russia's $15bn attempt to create a tech startup environment to compete with Silicon Valley.

I mentioned in one of my reports that the Russian government was also funding a massive broadband roll-out - and some people asked for more details. I've managed to track down a few more facts:

Last month, the Russian government contracted with Rostelecom, the national telecoms operator, in a deal worth 163bn rubles - about £2.8bn - to meet a universal broadband service commitment.

The agreement will see Rostelecom install fibre broadband to provide a minimum of 10Mbps connectivity to all unconnected towns and villages with more than 250 people - that's roughly 13,600 settlements with a total population of four million people, currently on the wrong side of the digital divide.

The company will lay 200,000km of fibre-optic cabling over the next five years. The contract offers Rostelecom exclusivity of service for 10 years.

The new fibre network will also be used as the basis for spreading broadband connectivity to smaller, surrounding neighbourhoods.

The Russian government intends to enact legislation to allow Rostelecom to lay fibre in the drainage systems that run alongside the country's road network.

Russia's communications minister, Nikolay Nikiforov, told delegates at the Skolkovo event that the plan will bring broadband to 97% of the country's population.

"In five years we hope Russia becomes a different country in terms of its communications opportunities," he said.

"We have the scale to make the investment pay off."

No other details appear to have been released about the specific technologies that will be used, but the scale of Russia's ambitions to become a major player in the global digital economy is demonstrated by the sheer scale of its broadband roll-out.

(Russia is also separately allocating 27bn rubles - about £460m - to upgrade the communications infrastructure in Crimea...)

Russia's investment in tech startups depends on overcoming concerns of its new web-savvy generation

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According to Bloomberg's ranking of the most innovative countries in the world, Russia ranks only 18th - ahead of China but behind not only most of its global competitors, but also relative minnows in the world economy such as Norway, The Netherlands and Austria.

It's this gap that the Russian government hopes to shrink, with its $15bn investment in the Skolkovo Innovation Centre - an initiative close to the heart of prime minister Dmitry Medvedev, hence his extended visit to the Startup Village conference earlier this week.

Having spent a few days at the event, meeting Russian startups and hearing from some of the business leaders, politicians and oligarchs backing the project, the obvious question is whether it's a realistic aim to propel Russia to the top of the global tech industry.

Read the previous posts written from Skolkovo:

Certainly there is no other initiative in the world that I'm aware of that is ploughing so much cash into creating a globally competitive tech startup environment. Those billions of rubles are creating, over the next five years, a small town on the outskirts of Moscow with office space, R&D facilities, a technology university, and residential properties for students, startup workers and their families. A new railway line is being built to connect the area to the Moscow metro.

It is all designed to take Russian technology and engineering skills to the world - this is not about targeting the domestic market. Startups have to demonstrate their international outlook and appeal if they are to be accepted onto a programme that offers significant tax incentives and the possibility of up to $10m in non-refundable grants.

Only one in six applicants are expected to be accepted, and only one in four of those will receive a grant - the filtering process is tough, and relies on a panel of 126 experts (35% of whom are non-Russian) to make assessments.

The Russian tech industry has few companies on the international stage. Two relatively niche suppliers - Kaspersky in security, and Parallels in virtualisation - are probably the best known. But Skolkovo supporters recognise the need for role models.

"We lack the feeling of the 'Gold Rush' in Silicon Valley - that critical mass of success stories," said Alexander Kuleshov, a director at the Russian Academy of Sciences.

"The role of Skolkovo is to create success stories to give the incentive to invest in further success stories."

Among most of the 8,500 delegates at the Startup Village, there was no lack of enthusiasm and belief - if nothing else, Skolkovo has already created the sort of upbeat, happy-clappy, funky beanbags environment associated with other startup communities such as Silicon Valley and Tech City in London.

But there is inevitable cynicism too. Skolkovo relies heavily on the emerging generation of students and young people who are the first to reach adulthood having never lived under Communism.

They have more of a global outlook than their parents, and that internationalism is key to the prospects of success at Skolkovo.

But that greater awareness has its drawbacks. Talking to some of the young people attending the event, there is also a greater desire to become a success outside Russia. President Putin is much less popular among the young, metropolitan crowd than he is among older generations and rural populations. One delegate told me that all their friends would like nothing more than to leave Russia and live abroad if they could, but they realise how difficult that will be.

Interestingly, the international disputes over Ukraine were dismissed by everyone I talked to. Russians seem to think it's a storm in a teacup, and say it has not hampered their overseas business relations in any way. Western sanctions on Russian politicians and oligarchs are welcomed by many Russians, because it means those rich men have to spend their fortunes within the country for a change, instead of shipping it abroad.

Much of the cynicism comes from the natural distrust of government. One of the Skolkovo employees compared it to the recent Sochi Winter Olympics, where much of Russia was negative and cynical about the amount of money spent, but once the Games started it was a huge success. The reactions were an exact parallel to the UK's experience with the London 2012 Olympics.

It's certainly true to say that if Skolkovo is a success that it would be widely welcomed. But the challenge is that the real impact of the government's multibillion-dollar investment is unlikely to be seen for at least 10 years, maybe 20. Meanwhile, the technology sector in the rest of the world moves on at pace.

Personally, I found the Skolkovo project to be very impressive. It is easy to be cynical when a huge, centralised government bureaucracy issues an edict to the effect that, "We WILL be successful in tech startups".

But Russia realises how important technology will be to its long-term economic competitiveness. Separately to Skolkovo, the government plans to roll out fibre broadband to every city, town and village with more than 250 people - an enormous initiative in a country the size of Russia.

The government has also decided to give away radio spectrum for free, to stimulate development of 3G and 4G networks - the country's communications minister Nikolay Nikiforov, chided European governments for treating radio spectrum as a cash cow, insisting that Russia would rather see telecoms companies put their money towards infrastructure roll-out rather than costly spectrum auctions.

But as long as the younger, internet-savvy generation see a government that controls the media, restricts web freedoms and relies on billionaire oligarchs, there will remain doubts about the country's ability to achieve its ambitious plans to become a global technology player. It's going to be one to watch.







Bringing the technology world to Russia

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The billions of rubles of government money being invested in the Skolkovo Innovation Centre on the outskirts of Moscow (read my previous post for more details) is not only going into developing the local tech startup community.

Several multinational technology companies have also signed up as partners for the Skolkovo initiative, including IBM, SAP, Intel, Cisco, Siemens and others.

While those firms will get early access to the innovations coming out of the Skolkovo-backed startups - and to government incentives that see startups excused of corporation tax for up to 10 years - they are also expected to set up research and development facilities at the expanding Skolkovo site, and so bring inward investment to the Russian tech sector.

There is an acknowledgement among Skolkovo executives that Russia's domestic technology market is not sufficient to grow its own startups, and by implication is not so appealing to the global tech suppliers beyond a core of 80 or so giant Russian companies such as Gazprom or Rosneft, the state gas and oil firms.

So Skolkovo is also intended to attract those IT suppliers to Russia by demonstrating the quality of Russian startup skills and the products they bring to market - and of course by the government cash being spent here.

Russian prime minister Dmitry Medvedev is due to visit the Startup Village event today - security at the gates was tighter, with lots of burly men in suits with earpieces and bulges under their jackets checking passports and IDs on the way in. Skolkovo is seen as one of Medvedev's pet projects and he is keen to give a demonstration of public support.

The oligarch that Medvedev put in charge of the Skolkovo project is Viktor Vekselberg - reputedly Russia's third richest man. Opening the event yesterday, Vekselberg said, "There is a saying in Russia: The first pancake you bake will be a failure. But here, we hope that all the pancakes we bake will be successful."

There is realism as well as pots of government cash behind Skolkovo, and it's not expected that the overseas IT giants will set up their R&D centres here until 2017 or 2018 at the earliest - plenty of time for them to better assess the return on investing in what is still an unproven initiative.

But in the global competition for the growing digital dollar, Russia is intent on becoming a major player - and that's something the UK and EU governments need to be aware of. The US, China and Japan will soon have another potential home for their R&D cash. 


How Moscow money and the post-Soviet generation hope to create Russia's Silicon Valley

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The Skolkovo Innovation Centre is about a half-hour drive from Red Square, in a 400 hectare building site on the outskirts of Moscow. Today and tomorrow, it's the venue for the second annual Startup Village event to showcase and promote Russia's technology startup scene - and Computer Weekly has been invited along to take a look.

Skolkovo is a government-backed initiative - reputedly to the tune of £10bn by 2020 - to create Russia's Silicon Valley. Set up by prime minister Dmitry Medvedev and run by oligarch Viktor Vekselberg, it is trying to create the sort of co-located collaborative community of entrepreneurs, tech wizards and investors that has become the model for startup success in the West.

It's a similar concept to London's Tech City, but backed by rather more billions of rubles than the British government is able to put into the East London startup cluster.

Russian executives and business leaders speaking at the opening ceremony of Startup Village acknowledge that the country is a long way behind Europe and the US in commercial technology.

Russia has a long technological heritage of course - engineers and industrialists funded by the state to find innovations for space and energy technologies in particular. Russian IT experts have set up successful domestic companies like Yandex, the country's equivalent of Google. But to date there has been not a sniff of success in international markets or in commercialising its engineering heritage on a global basis.

In typical Russian fashion, Skolkovo has not come without controversy - allegations of corruption have swirled around executives since ejected from the project.

But the desire to make Skolkovo a success is reflected in the fact that organisers expect President Putin to make a visit to the Startup Village event tomorrow. Putin doesn't associate himself with failures.

There is a palpable attempt to create the sort of startup vibe that has become a cliche in London - the open air event has beanbags everywhere and is decorated with multicoloured statues of cows, something of a gaudy, psychedelic equivalent of Milton Keynes, itself once intended as a beacon of British engineering ingenuity.

But more than 8,000 people are visiting or taking part at the Startup Village, and over 200 startups are here - with products ranging from energy to healthcare to information security, cloud computing, nuclear and more. There are also the compulsory robots and mini-copters.

The ambition behind Skolkovo is clear - and with the majority of the site yet to be developed, including a university intended to rival MIT - there is a lot more to be done.

Skolkovo's sociological heart though, lies in the generation of twenty-something graduates - the first new entrants to Russia's workforce who were born since the fall of Communism and the Soviet Union. More creative, less inhibited by the past, in theory with more of a global outlook than their protectionist forebears, freed from the collective mantra and centralised state control.  

The Startup Village is full of them - in jeans and T-shirts, like tech startups anywhere in the world - listening to the suit-and-tie wearing executives and oligarchs on stage encouraging them to do things differently and telling them they are the future of the country.

That future lasts only as long as those suits believe there is money to be made from the creativity of the younger generation. But there is no doubting the intent or the desire from all the age groups represented here today.

It is very early days for the Russian tech scene - will Skolkovo be its birth or its folly? The next couple of days will hopefully provide some clues.

Large firms are turning to tech startups because traditional IT suppliers are failing to innovate

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Amid all the talk of the growth of the UK's tech startup scene in recent years, there has been one significant development that has gone relatively unremarked - the failure of traditional IT suppliers to deliver the digital innovation their customers increasingly demand.

Computer Weekly has for some time reported about the growing number of large corporates that are investing heavily in supporting or working with tech startups to find innovative new technologies to help their move to digital and increase competitiveness.

For example, John Lewis has set up a startup incubator, and last week announced the first five firms it will be working with. Unilever last month established a scheme to mentor and fund tech startups to work on global projects. Even public sector bodies such as Ordnance Survey are working closely with the startup scene. Big banks like Barclays and Citi have been courting startups for some time.

It is, of course, great to see large companies supporting innovation and small businesses like this. But it is surely also an indication of the failure of their traditional IT suppliers to deliver the sort of technology innovations that big firms now need.

Those large vendors will point to the number of patents they create, and the size of their research and development budgets. But who can point to any genuinely new or innovative technologies that have come out of the likes of IBM, HP, Microsoft, Oracle, and their ilk in the last five years?

Some experts say that the economic slump is the cause - and some even claim that large firms have deliberately slowed the pace of innovation as they seek to pump up profits to keep shareholders happy in difficult times.

If that's true, then perhaps that slowdown has created the opportunity that so many tech startups are now able to exploit.

But the rise of cloud, mobile and big data is radically changing the landscape, moving away from the game the traditional suppliers are used to playing - and their most important corporate customers have realised those suppliers are struggling to change fast enough.

Increasingly it is clear that it's not the tech startup scene per se that is driving innovation in business technology, but the knowledge among the biggest corporate users of IT that they can no longer rely on their traditional suppliers to support them in the digital age.

The new CIO reality - reputational risk from IT problems will be a big factor in the changing role

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It's not been a great week for public perceptions of technology.

First, yet another major sporting event had problems selling tickets. The Glasgow Commonwealth Games ticketing website crashed in a burst of embarrassment - there is little coincidence in the fact the site was run by Ticketmaster, provider of the equally problematic London 2012 Olympics ticket service.

Then eBay revealed one of the most high-profile cyber attacks yet - its entire customer database of passwords, emails and home addresses was compromised earlier this year. The website is justifiably being criticised for taking so long to discover the breach - which took place in February and March - and for releasing so little details of the nature of the attack. Questions are rightly being raised about how effective are the security controls at one of the world's most popular online shopping destinations.

When IT goes bad these days, it makes it onto the main TV news programmes. The BBC's technology correspondent Rory Cellan-Jones is becoming an increasingly common sight on the News at Ten to explain why things went wrong and what is being done about it.

For companies and services that rely so heavily on IT - and what business doesn't - reputational risk has to be factored into their business and technology planning.

Late last year in the US, retailer Target was hit by one of the largest security breaches in history - 70 million records stolen by hackers, including details of 40 million credit and data debit cards. Both the CIO and CEO of the company have since been forced to resign - an unprecedented act of contrition, but one that is only likely to happen again.

The BBC's former chief technology officer, John Linwood, is currently in the midst of court action against the broadcaster after he was sacked as a result of the failed £100m Digital Media Initiative. Linwood insists he was made a scapegoat for wider failings.

IT - and IT leaders - are first in the firing line now when security breaches occur or technology goes badly and publicly wrong. For all the talk that digital business and consumerisation of technology is changing the role of the CIO, nothing heightens the expectations on the IT chief more than the exposure of reputation-ruining problems.

Lots of factors are changing the role of IT and its practitioners. But nobody should underestimate the impact of heightened public and executive awareness as one of the biggest influences on the future of IT in business.

Are the UK's borders being compromised by legacy IT systems?

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My sources suggest that the IT problems that affected UK airports and sea ports earlier this week were related to Warnings Index, the ageing system that sits at the heart of the UK's border controls.

Travellers into the UK faced long delays through immigration on Wednesday 30 April as a result of the glitches. Airports including Gatwick, Heathrow, Luton, Stansted and Birmingham were affected, as well as Dover and Southampton docks.

Warnings Index (WI) is the common link between passport scanners, border control gates, and the systems used by border authorities. To ensure maximum resilience, every major port keeps a local copy of the WI database in case there is a problem with the central system.

If both the central system and the local databases were affected - as seems likely - it suggests a major flaw somewhere in Warnings Index or its underlying infrastructure.

We will never know for sure - the Home Office has a policy never to comment on anything to do with Warnings Index, such is its sensitivity and importance for UK border security.

WI is used to check travellers against lists of known criminals, terrorists or others that the government considers should be excluded from the UK or flagged upon entry.

The Warnings Index system, provided by Fujitsu, is understood to be nearly 20 years' old. Previous parliamentary investigations have shown the data it contains to be poor quality, often out of date, and badly managed.

A report last year by John Vine, the independent chief inspector of borders and immigration, said Warnings Index contains "critical system vulnerabilities".

If those vulnerabilities were related to the latest glitches, then Vine's warnings cannot be heeded quickly enough.

But the planned replacement for WI continues to be delayed.

The Home Office's latest plans to replace Warnings Index were vetoed by the Cabinet Office last year. The new Border Systems Programme (BSP) went before the Cabinet Office for approval in summer 2013, but was rejected because it did not conform to the guidelines issued by the Government Digital Service (GDS).

The project was subsequently reviewed and a new approach was initiated that conforms more closely to the agile and digital principles established by GDS, using in-house software developers to build a prototype system.

It was the second time plans to replace Warnings Index have run into problems.

BSP also aims to replace another critical border system known as Semaphore, which was developed by IBM in 2004 and intended to be only a pilot project before the wider e-Borders programme was put in place.

The original e-Borders programme was terminated last year and merged into BSP, four years after a £750m contract with Raytheon was cancelled. The current systems also do not support additional functions promised by the government, such as exit checks, which are needed to track people moving in and out of the country.

My sources also suggest that only a handful of people remain in government who have the skills and knowledge to support Warnings Index (a situation not uncommon to a lot of legacy government IT).

So the UK is a left with an ageing IT system, containing known vulnerabilities, with scarce supporting expertise, that has now been shown to have the ability to effectively close the UK's borders if it fails.

A project may be underway to replace Warnings Index at last, but this week's glitches demonstrate that until that is finally completed, there is a very real risk that UK border security could be compromised by its legacy IT systems.






Cloud collaboration is the key to UK banks' legacy IT problem

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The problem with legacy IT systems at the UK's banks is increasingly becoming an industry-wide issue.

Financial services watchdog the Prudential Regulation Authority (PRA) has recognised the scale of the problem, with its CEO stating that banks would be better off rebuilding their IT from scratch than constantly trying to integrate ageing systems with new technologies.

But the troubles at the Co-operative Bank demonstrate just how difficult that would be to pull off successfully.

A report published this week into the bank's near-collapse highlighted IT as a major factor. The Co-op intended to replace its core IT with a new off-the-shelf banking system to bring its technology into the 21st century.

But executives hugely underestimated the complexity of such a project and eventually scrapped the programme, writing off nearly £150m as a result.

The Co-op is a relative minnow compares to giants like Barclays, Lloyds, and Royal Bank of Scotland (RBS). That shows the scale of the challenge of ripping and replacing IT systems that are increasingly stretched beyond limits - leading to the serious outages seen at RBS and Lloyds that temporarily prevented customers from accessing their money.

But perhaps there is a solution.

Banks have a history of collaborating when it comes to common interests. The UK banks originally set up BACS as a standard clearing house for financial transactions. Swift, the international platform for exchanging secure financial messaging, is a co-operative owned by its members.

Retail banks today don't compete on the features of their core transactional systems - they differentiate through their websites, branch services and mobile apps. Surely the transaction engines, many of which are 20 or 30 years' old, are commodities now.

So, what if the major retail banks came together and jointly developed a cloud-based transaction engine for all to use - which they could also sell out to challenger banks as the government tries to increase the number of banks on the high street.

Instead of spending billions of pounds each, they can spend less, build and test a secure central system, and focus their innovation and differentiation on more modern, digital technologies.

The regulator needs to take the initiative and investigate the potential for the cloud to transform UK banking and bring the industry's IT into the digital age.

Is DWP looking for yet another new chief for Universal Credit?

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Is the troubled Universal Credit programme looking for yet another new leader for the project?

A good contact of mine has told me that he was approached by two separate headhunters recently, asking if he might be interested in becoming director general of Universal Credit.

The incumbent, Howard Shiplee, was off sick for several weeks earlier this year, and another source has told me that he is still not back working full-time - it was suggested that he is only fully working for one day a week. This source suggested that Shiplee was still very ill - he has apparently had a form of bronchitis that turned into something more serious.

The Department for Work and Pensions (DWP) press office insists there are no plans for Shiplee to step down, and said the focus of the welfare reform programme is on plans for further expansion in the summer.

But you have to bear in mind that the same department consistently denied there were any problems with the Universal Credit IT project, right up to the point last year that the National Audit Office revealed just how deep and costly those problems were.

Certainly my contacts seemed confident that DWP is looking around for a possible replacement for Shiplee. Maybe it is just a contingency plan in the event his health does not improve, and everyone would of course wish him a rapid improvement and to continue in such a vital job.

But were Shiplee forced to step down, it would be seen as yet another huge blow for Universal Credit.

He is already the sixth leader of the project in barely two years. Malcolm Whitehouse and Steve Dover, the early managers, left DWP once it became apparent the IT was in trouble. DWP CIO Philip Langsdale took charge in August 2012 before his untimely death in December that year. Hilary Reynolds moved on in early 2013 after just four months as programme director, while David Pitchford took over as interim chief before Shiplee's appointment in May 2013.

The current DWP CIO, Andy Nelson, while not the project leader, is also leaving the civil service in the next few months. (The DWP suggested that perhaps some wires had been crossed and my contact was approached by headhunters about replacing Nelson, but the contact maintains that was not the case).

Shiplee, previously construction director for the London 2012 Olympics, was lauded by secretary of state Iain Duncan Smith as something of a saviour.

"The main point I would make about Howard is that, before he came to us, he was the person who delivered the Olympic Park," Duncan Smith told MPs on the Work and Pensions select committee in July last year.

"It was his responsibility, and he has been a project director, manager, etc, and you will see from his CV that he has a phenomenal background in delivering projects on time and within budget."

It would be a personal blow to the minister, let alone to the wider project, were Shiplee unable to continue. Any replacement would be picking up something of a poisoned chalice, especially given the timing in the run up to next year's General Election.

One of my contacts described Universal Credit as "broken". Whoever wins the May 2015 election, it is highly likely that the whole structure and approach to Universal Credit will be subject to review in the early days of a new administration. That's not a particularly stable job environment in which to recruit the sort of strong, experienced leader that might have to take over.

Shiplee is widely acknowledged to have steadied the ship since his appointment. The IT project continues using its controversial "twin-track" approach, with DWP digital chief Kevin Cunnington becoming increasingly the key figure in the development of the IT systems that will ultimately be used when Universal Credit goes fully live in 2017.

After a slow start, there are now 50 IT staff working on the "enhanced" Universal Credit system under Cunnington, although 15 of those are contractors rather than full-time staff.

Computer Weekly has asked DWP to confirm Shiplee's current status and whether there are any plans in place, even tentatively, to look for a replacement should his health problems continue. At the time of writing, we have yet to receive a reply.

Does Heartbleed show it is time to 'corporatise' open source?

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The exposure of the Heartbleed bug that causes a major security vulnerability in many websites has handed a gift to the anti-open source lobby.

One of the most popular claims boasted by the open source community is that its code is inherently more secure because anyone can read it, and anyone can spot flaws.

The fact that Heartbleed - a small but significant bug in the code for the widely used OpenSSL encryption software - had been in existence for at least two years without being spotted or fixed rather weakens that argument.

But open source should not be dismissed just because of this one problem, no matter how significant it may be.

We have moved on a long way from the time that for most businesses "open source" meant using Linux instead of Windows.

Major organisations are adopting open source both as a way to adopt "free" software and as a cultural approach to software development.

Channel 4, for example, has built its big data strategy around open source products and contributes back to the relevant development communities.

The UK's Government Digital Service (GDS) has mandated that all software developed using public money should be published as open source - as a result, the New Zealand government is using the Drupal-based web publishing platform that GDS created for the Gov.UK website.

That sort of corporate backing for open source goes a long way to convincing IT leaders of its merits, and of the role it can play alongside proprietary products - which of course still have their place in the corporate IT infrastructure.

But there must be a danger - as demonstrated by Heartbleed - that open source hits a tipping point where the scale of use outweighs the resources of the community that creates it.

In local government in the UK, there is a growing body of IT leaders that would like to see open source products developed to replace the cumbersome legacy applications that the sector is locked into.

But trying to create a local government open source community to develop and support such products is a huge challenge that even a determined body of enthusiasts would have to take on.

Perhaps this demonstrates that in some areas, open source needs to have a more corporate approach - not from software vendors, but from its growing group of corporate users.

If IT leaders want to use more open source software, they will increasingly need to back that with resources - people and cash - to help support the wider community.

Corporates need to acknowledge that open source is not just a way to develop software, but a cultural approach to IT that needs their full support if they are to achieve the many benefits it offers.

Analysing G-Cloud: A need for wider awareness and promotion?

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Few could doubt that the government's G-Cloud purchasing framework has been a success so far. More than £100m has been spent through it, opening up the market to SMEs and saving taxpayers' money compared to traditional procurement routes for IT.

There is no evidence to quantify those savings other than anecdotal - nobody is keeping a record of what a contract would have cost in the pre-G-Cloud days to compare - but some buyers have suggested savings of 50% are regularly achieved, with reports of as much as 80%.

But if there is one recurring criticism of G-Cloud, it's that not enough people are using it.

Awareness outside of central government is low - too few local authorities are regular users, for example.

An analysis of the publicly available G-Cloud spending data by Mark Craddock, former Cloudstore lead for the G-Cloud programme in the Cabinet Office and now working independently as a cloud consultant, sheds some interesting light on the challenges of delivering benefits to a wider set of buying organisations.

(Note that Cloudstore is the online catalogue of suppliers and their offerings, while G-Cloud is the purchasing framework within which Cloudstore operates).

Craddock's analysis suggests that while the amount spent and the number of transactions placed through G-Cloud continue to grow, the number of new buyers and suppliers placing and winning deals respectively, seems to have plateaued, as this graph shows:

G-cloud chart 1.pngBreaking down those figures further backs up that suggestion. This graph shows the number of new buyers and suppliers using G-Cloud each month:

G-cloud chart 2.jpgThis chart shows a steady increase up to August 2013 - roughly the time that former G-Cloud programme director Denise McDonagh moved on to become CTO at the Home Office, where she remains a stalwart G-Cloud advocate. But the number of new buyers has yet to recover to that peak level.

Craddock said that he thinks G-Cloud remains under-staffed and claimed just two people work on it full-time.

Back in February last year, former government digital director Chris Chant - the man who launched G-Cloud - called the programme "woefully underfunded" and said the Cabinet Office had originally promised to fund the equivalent of 20 full-time staff for the project.

A detailed look through the G-Cloud data backs up claims that repeat buyers are a big factor in the growth in cumulative spending.

For example, of the 162 transactions placed by the NHS agency the Care Quality Commission, 50 have gone to supplier Axis12, and 90 to Computacenter, with the remaining 22 deals spread between five companies.

The Civil Aviation Authority has placed 169 contracts, with 135 going to SCC, 21 to SmartSourcing and 13 to Equiniti.

The vast majority of the Department for Business, Innovation & Skills' transactions have gone to six suppliers - Fivium, IBM, Huddle, Parity, DXW and Zuhlke.

All but two of the 34 Department for International Development deals have been awarded to Emergn. 

Of 205 Department for Work and Pensions contracts, 40 went to Emergn, and 121 to Valtech.

At Health Education England, all but three of 132 deals have gone to BJSS.

From 198 transactions by the Houses of Parliament, all but six went to Interoute.

Every one of the 209 NHS Connecting for Health deals went to the same supplier, BJSS.

At the Office for National Statistics, where 330 transactions have gone through G-Cloud, 194 went to Parity, 59 to Methods Consulting, 43 to LA International, and 26 to Emergn.

Similar patterns can be observed for all the biggest G-Cloud buyers to date.

Now of course, this is still a lot better than having 80% of IT spend going to an oligarchy dominated by five or six big suppliers, as has been the case in the past.

It also has to be said that is is nothing but a huge improvement that all this spending data is publicly available for anyone to see - a welcome change from a past dominated by secrecy and Whitehall hiding behind "commercial confidentiality".

But the statistics suggest that within individual public sector bodies, a small set of suppliers are preferred; and that certain suppliers have worked out how to win G-Cloud deals more effectively than most of their rivals.

Anecdotally again, some suppliers are saying it has become too hard to win business on G-Cloud among so many listed vendors and services, and too difficult to understand how to stand out from that crowd.

The commitment of the Government Digital Service (GDS) to G-Cloud is still strong - although it does intend to re-brand the G-Cloud framework - and the early months of the programme have amply demonstrated that using this sort of framework, with its price transparency, wide range of suppliers, and rapid purchasing process, is shaking up the way parts of the public sector purchase IT for the better.

But it also shows there is a long way to go, and that GDS needs to promote and market G-Cloud more effectively to a wider audience of IT buyers if it is to fulfil its undoubted promise.

Update: Mark Craddock subsequently produced the following graph, which is a breakdown of the organisations eligible to buy through G-Cloud, by sector. It refers to the number of organisations, not the spending power, but it is interesting to see how small a piece of this pie is represented by central government (although the portion by IT spend would of course be much higher). This tends to reinforce the need for greater promotion of G-Cloud beyond Whitehall:
G-cloud chart 3.PNG




Who wants Windows XP to live forever?

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And so the most popular PC operating system of all time reaches the final winter of its years.

Windows XP goes out of regular support on 8 April, but it is testament to its enduring success that Microsoft has been forced to extend provision of anti-malware updates for another year, and millions of users will remain covered by extended support agreements taken out by their employers.

According to web stats firm Netmarketshare.com, as many as 27% of all PCs still use XP.

We don't know how many UK government PCs still rely on XP - there are about 650,000 in the NHS alone - but the Cabinet Office has paid out £5.5m to keep its XP estate covered for another 12 months.

Most of the UK's ATM networks run on versions of XP too, with banks also having to sign up to extended support.

We have all become used to the idea that old software ceases to be, but the lingering reliance on XP does raise questions about whether users really want constant new versions for every application.

XP has continued because it works - it does a job, it does it well, it is reliable, no-frills and for many applications it could have happily kept going for a long time yet. It's only the fear of unpatched security vulnerabilities that is driving laggards to migrate.

Many observers have been critical of organisations that have failed to move off a system that has been flagged for its end of life for a few years - it has hardly come as a surprise that XP support is ending.

But those criticisms assume that an endless cycle of version releases is always going to be the state of play in IT.

Microsoft's rivals such as Apple and Google have already dispensed with the concept - moving instead to constant, free version updates that are either applied automatically in the cloud or pushed to user devices.

Microsoft struggles with that concept because its Windows and Office business models are predicated on licence fees for every new version.

But if we are really moving into the age of user need, with the balance of power in the hands of users not their suppliers, then much greater flexibility and choice is inevitable. In a different climate, XP might have continued safely on as a legacy operating system for many years.

Read more:

Windows XP support will end this year - are you prepared?

Microsoft urges businesses on Windows XP to migrate

Failure to migrate from Windows XP could torpedo your business

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  • Bryan Glick: I couldn't agree more Neville! It was not my intention read more
  • Neville Fernandes: I couldn't agree less. The issue appears to be a read more
  • Mike Jackson: Spot on Moira, catch their imaginations while young. As Bryan read more
  • Charlie Hull: The big SIs certainly aren't playing by the rules, as read more
  • sue waller: It is all about balance its not SIs v SMEs read more
  • Philip Virgo: But how do we bring about "genuine competition". The essential read more
  • Jonathan Tilbury: Bryan My company is a supplier of Digital Preservation under read more
  • Bryan Glick: Why so, Douglas? I'd be interested to hear your reasoning... read more
  • Douglas McGill: This must be onoe of the moronic solutions to any read more
  • Philip Virgo: I think the incident shows the strength, rather than the read more

Dilbert

 

 

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