Newham Linux trial: We made right choice for the people we serve

"Disgust at your lack of critical analysis"..."Cost the taxpayer millions"..."This fiasco should cost you your job"..."Made...

"Disgust at your lack of critical analysis"..."Cost the taxpayer millions"..."This fiasco should cost you your job"..."Made yourself a laughing stock"..."Borderline illegal activities"..."Bribe takers".

The launch, last week, of Newham's partnership with Microsoft has certainly added to the size of my in-box.

My job and that of my colleagues in Newham ICT is to deliver the best possible IT infrastructure and services for Newham Council and the people it serves, and I am proud of our successes over the years and the reputation for innovation and performance that we have earned.

Our job is not to be defenders or advocates for Microsoft, but we reserve our right to acknowledge its customer service improvements where we see them, as we do with any other supplier. Nor is it our job to champion the fight against the "evil Microsoft empire". If there are better, practical and cost-effective alternatives to Microsoft products that we can readily integrate, we use them.

So let's be clear: in our partnership with Microsoft, we are committing to a "why not Microsoft?" approach. This means exactly what it says. If other products represent better value for Newham, that is reason to not buy Microsoft. Microsoft not only understands and accepts this, but welcomes the challenge to ensure its offerings remain competitive.

Questions of accuracy

Understandably, there has been a great deal of interest in the cost comparisons that were developed through the Capgemini study funded by Microsoft. I have some reservations of my own concerning some of the details - not because I think they have been fiddled, but because the Gartner model on which Capgemini based its assessment predicts a greater demand for IT resources in than we actually experience.

That is why one of the commitments in Newham's partnership with Microsoft is to develop robust benchmarking.

We have set a target of maintaining Newham in the upper quartile for price-performance among local authorities. What's more, we will regularly report back concerning this and other aspects of progress in our partnership.

I can appreciate the cynicism about an "independent" study paid for by Microsoft. As far as I am concerned, the Capgemini consultants disported themselves in a professional manner and did operate independently. However, we were determined to rigorously challenge the status quo, and had already appointed our own consultants, from Netproject, who we knew to be pro-open source.

Netproject produced a very professional piece of work, with many of its conclusions quite similar to Capgemini's, although, unsurprisingly, quite different recommendations ensued.

We are satisfied that the process we initiated equipped us to reach a well-informed decision about the future IT infrastructure strategy for Newham - and this was possibly the most exhaustive test of Microsoft software procurement in the UK to date.

Negotiating position

We have been accused of using Netproject to improve our negotiating position with Microsoft. That is untrue. At the outset of this process, if pressed, my prediction was that a big-bang approach would be unrealistic, but Newham would set a course that committed us to developing a strategy built around products based-on open source.

If Newham has influenced Microsoft's change of stance towards the UK public sector, then I am pleased, but I think the changes have been largely coincidental. Microsoft was already realising that it had to adapt to a fast-changing market - and it has adapted.

The Microsoft I see now is quite different to the "PC software supplier" I knew 18 months ago. It is no longer about selling bells and whistles to end-users, but is much more focused on helping us to develop throughout the enterprise. It has developed a new focus on the public sector and brought in people that understand us and can speak our language.

Microsoft now seems to be an organisation that is prepared to listen to us, is aware of its imperfections, and is striving to improve. For that, if for nothing else, it deserves credit.

For the sake of my battered ego, and having been accused of denigrating the open source community - which I absolutely deny - I hope I may be forgiven for wishing some of its members, the minority, would not so readily sink into name-calling and immoderate language.

Richard Steel is head of ICT at Newham Council

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