European Commission buys Microsoft for 20 years without competition

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European Commission buys Microsoft for 20 years without competition

Mark Ballard

The European Commission has been buying Microsoft software since 1993 without an open and public competition to assess alternative products, according to documents released to Computer Weekly.

As a result of striking its sixth successive uncontested deal with Microsoft in May this year, the Commission has ensured Microsoft will have dominated the desktop computing environment of European institutions for 20 years without allowing a single rival to compete for the business.

Documents released to Computer Weekly will raise questions about a procurement regime that allows a sole supplier to reign unchallenged for so long using legal exceptions meant only for extraordinary circumstances.

They will also raise questions about the validity of the official justifications the Commission used to secure its purchasing arrangements with Microsoft, called "negotiated procedures", the last of which concerned approximately €50m of software licences for 36,000 PCs and their supporting infrastructure across 42 European institutions, including the European Parliament and Court of Justice.

Karsten Gerloff, president of lobby group Free Software Foundation Europe, said the ongoing Microsoft arrangement was a "disgrace" for the European Commission (EC).

"It's astounding that every single agreement between the Commission and Microsoft since 1993 has been concluded without a public call for tender," he said.

"The result has been the European Commission's total dependence on a single software vendor for its office automation platform. It's clear that Europe's procurement regulations urgently need an update. The rules leave too much room for anti-competitive, negotiated procedures."

Paul Holt, sales director of Microsoft competitor Canonical, said, "It demonstrates there's not a fair and level playing field."

He said the Microsoft deals prevented European institutions from using open standards that would promote competition. They were forced to use technical standards determined by Microsoft.

A spokesman for Microsoft said the firm would not comment. "The Commission is the contract partner and they decide on the procedure," he said.

Computer Weekly understands however that Microsoft backs the official line the European Commission's Directorate for Informatics (DIGIT) has given in answer to recent questions by MEPs about their contracts.

Maroš Šefčovič, the Commission vice president and commissioner for inter-institutional relations and administration, who is leading a major reform of IT at the EC, told MEPs the Commission was committed to "promoting interoperability" using standards. But he said these standards could include those implemented by commercial software vendors. He denied the Commission was locked into supply from any single vendor.

DIGIT claimed in 1992 that it must enter a private arrangement with Microsoft because there was no-one else who could supply the required software. But the Commission's official justification for the arrangement was vague.

Similar uncontested deals in 1996 and 1999 cemented Microsoft's position as the sole supplier of desktop operating systems and office productivity applications to the Commission.

By 2003, the Commission's official justification had changed. It now claimed that any alternative software would be technically incompatible and migration unusually burdensome, so it had no choice but to carry on buying Microsoft.

The Commission used the same incompatibility complaint to justify uncontested deals with Microsoft in 2007 and 2011. The justification appeared to contradict Šefčovič's claim that the Commission was not locked into Microsoft and that it was committed to standards of interoperability.

A spokesman for DIGIT said EU procurement directives have changed several times over the past 20 years, but that suppliers were chosen after a thorough analysis of the market, user requirements and cost of ownership.

"There are a number of procedures that can be used for the acquisition of goods and services. The choice of the procedure is, for every procurement case independently, duly motivated. It results from a thorough analysis of the market situation, user requirements and the total cost of ownership, and is carried out within the framework of the EC's well proven Technology Management Process," he said in a written statement. Decisions were subject to internal controls and adhered to European law.

He insisted the Commission was not locked in to buying Microsoft: "We have always made quite clear that this is not the case, and that an analysis is made of the market options every time."

The latest deal in May secured licences for the European administration's continued use of a comprehensive range of Microsoft software. It included desktop operating systems, Microsoft Office, SQL Server Enterprise database software, and tools for collaboration, project management, security and e-mail.

But Šefčovič has introduced a series of IT governance committees that have still not decided whether the Commission should take up options available under its latest licensing deal to continue along Microsoft's upgrade path.

A pending decision to upgrade to Microsoft's Windows 7 operating system is still unsettled, nine months after it was first put before heads of directorates.

Graham Taylor, chief executive of Open Forum Europe, a lobby group backed by Google, IBM, Oracle and Red Hat, said they treated the negotiated procedure with "extreme caution" and failed to understand why the Commission had used it to prevent competition in desktop software.

See also:

What secrecy did for European procurement

European Commission renews controversial Microsoft contract

European Commission signs largest ever software deal

EU keeps schtum on Microsoft prices


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