Ban the Microsoft "virus", government told

Microsoft web software is like a computer virus in government computer systems and must be banned, a meeting of the British Computer Society’s Open Source Specialist Group heard last week.

Called by Home Office lead architect Tariq Rashid, the meeting formed part of an investigation into why government open source policy has floundered. Rashid got a clutch of executives from the systems integrators who control 80 per cent of the UK’s £16-24bn public sector IT industry, sat them before a room full of open source advocates, and asked them to explain why the computer industry had become so stagnant under their watch.

Why for example, asked Rashid, had proprietary Microsoft technologies become entrenched in government systems? The audience seemed more sure of the answer than the panel of executives. The problem was proprietary Microsoft software. Rashid agreed.

Chris Kenyon, vice president of global OEM sales at Linux publisher Canonical, said some technologies had such a malignant effect they should be “banned” from government systems.

“Some software components are so fundamentally viral in the way they get used that the government may want to [reconsider], given that there’s convicted monopolist behind a couple of them,” said Kenyon.

Rashid had wanted to know why the “vast majority” of government websites were delivered using Microsoft’s Internet Information Services Web Server (IIS). Before long the meeting was considering how a phalanx of Microsoft internet technologies, including its Internet Explorer (IE) Browser and ActiveX system for distributing software applications, reinforced one another to the detriment of competing technologies.

Kenyon referred to his sales conversations with the IT chiefs of large organisations: “If they are predominantly on IE, you can guarantee that they have built ActiveX requirements in, and will have used IIS,” he said. He went on: “But…IIS encourages the use of ActiveX. You are automatically encouraging people to use IE, automatically locking them into Windows laptops.”

Was IIS “too dangerous and viral” to permit at all, he asked. “There are a few key elements of software stacks globally that if you choose proprietary software, you are setting a dreadful precedent,” he said.

“Outlook and exchange!”, someone shouted from the audience.

Kenyon, said these technologies “may be just so fundamentally viral” that their continued use prevented the government fulfilling its open source policy.

Approached after the meeting, Microsoft refused to comment. The open source community would say Microsoft was a virus, wouldn’t it? Kenyon sits on the board of Canonical, Microsoft’s arch rival.

But this was not all.

“I have to agree with what you are saying,” replied the government lead architect.

“We pay through the nose with when we get stuck with applications that are ActiveX-specific or browser-specific, which then in turn is desktop specific,” said Rashid.

It was, he stated, a question of open interoperability standards, or not as the case may be. He derided the use of “secret codes”, meaning the proprietary standards by which it was implied Microsoft systems interoperate – to the exclusion of competitors unless those competitors conceded to build their systems on Microsoft’s terms.

The meeting proceeded on the assumption that most public sector procurement officers had not even heard of Apache, an open source alternative to IIS, let alone considered that it might be preferable. The procurement system was much to blame. The public sector was awash with Microsoft and Oracle consultants. Procurement officers didn’t know anything about technology, they just did what they were told.

The government was doing a host of things to address it. Some might even discourage government procurement officers from installing IIS in a zombie-like fashion. They include ways of promoting open source software. They include a mandate for open standards “where possible”. They have not yet extended to hazard warnings for unhealthy proprietary systems, let alone a ban.

Rashid is hosting another meeting of the BCS Open Source Specialist Group this evening.