Editorial: Public money, private profit

Today Microsoft co-founder and chief technology architect Bill Gates is due to stand on a stage with senior UK government...

Today Microsoft co-founder and chief technology architect Bill Gates is due to stand on a stage with senior UK government ministers to announce a series of IT investments that promise to modernise the state of public sector IT.

National press and broadcasters will be there. Smiling faces will appear in our newspapers and on our TV screens. Gates, in the public's eye a symbol of modernity, will provide the appropriate sound-bites that will help the Government to project the progressive image it craves. The phrase "digital nervous system" may even rear its ugly head once again. We will be promised the most technologically advanced public services in the world - and be grateful. It is all very New Labour.

Sorry to pour cold water on this mutual preening, but the Government should be more careful when choosing its bedfellows. Contrary to the general view, Microsoft has never been a leading technology innovator. Most of its products and services - Dos, Windows, Internet Explorer, and Hotmail - have been bought, or borrowed, some in a manner which narrowly stayed on the right side of the law.

Worse still, the way it has used its practical monopoly of the PC operating system market has stifled innovation among its competitors according to the US Department of Justice. Although this case is now approaching a settlement, the European Commission is currently putting together a similar case to curtail alleged abuses of Microsoft's market dominance.

Nor can the company promise that government systems based on its technology will be secure. Business have had to grapple constantly with security glitches on Microsoft ISS Internet server. Meanwhile, the past couple of years have seen increasingly malevolent e-mail viruses, almost all enabled by Microsoft technology. Microsoft itself has suffered as a result of its own security shortcomings after hackers, possibly from Russia, viewed - and may have copied - versions of future Microsoft technology in a humiliating security breach.

And the Government's grand plans will cost money. A lot of money. This year Microsoft re-jigged its licensing model to "simplify" it for business users. In fact, businesses and public sector organisations have universally found costs will increase, although Microsoft disputes this.

The Government will be taking a huge risk - should it be unsatisfied with the projects, will it be easy to move to another supplier? And how much would such a move cost? Microsoft's track record on producing technology that can be easily integrated with that of its competitors raises an ominous spectre here.

While Britain is weighing up its alliances, both over the pond and across the channel, it is interesting to look at how our European partners are investing public money in IT. Both France and Germany are pouring funds into open source-based government IT systems. They will be developed by and freely available to public sector IT professionals. The business community at large will even benefit from new software without having to pay.

But the UK has opted to line the pockets of the world's richest man. After all, the spin doctors would hardly have allowed a Linux penguin on stage with a government minister, would they?

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