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UK Govt silent on portal plans

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Last week Silicon Valley-based Loudcloud won the contract to host the UK Government's ukonline.gov.uk Web site.

The site is run by the Office of the e-Envoy, which is part of the Cabinet Office, and is the Government's single point of access for all its e-services. When Version 2 of the site goes live next year it should have added features, better navigation and an improved "look and feel".

Although some way off from being complete, the site is an encyclopaedia of information, detailing the Government's services from cradle to grave - everything from having a baby to learning to drive and what to do when a relative dies.

There's also a feature called open.gov which lets people search 1.3 million Government documents. It may be just a fancy search engine but at least its name displays a sentiment that the Government is keen to be seen to be approachable.

Unfortunately, that doesn't seem to apply to information about its new contract with Loudcloud, the Californian-based Internet services company formed in 1999 by former Netscape front man, Marc Andreesen.

For the record, UKonline.gov.uk is running Apache/1.3.20 (Unix) PHP/4.0.6 on Solaris 8, according to Netcraft.com

Asked about software platform changes to the portal, a spokesman for Loudcloud said: "We aren't getting into details about the software changes or platforms that we are using for the site.

"If you need specific information - I'd suggest you contact the Cabinet Office directly."

Strange, for when we approached the Cabinet Office to ask whether there would be changes to the software platform it bounced us back to Loudcloud. In turn, Loudcloud bounced us back to the Cabinet Office. The result was a frustrating game of PR ping-pong.

Eventually, a spokeswoman for the Cabinet Office told The Register: "There will be a change in the software platform but until Version 2 is launched next year we just can't discuss specifics."

So much for open Government.

However, the Government's reluctance to answer questions on the matter raises some fears about the direction of the Government's e-policy.

In May The Register reported that the UK Government's gateway.gov.uk site - the "centralised registration service for all e-Government services in the United Kingdom" - would only work with Microsoft software. Linux, Netscape and Mac (even with Internet Explorer) users were left unable to register for the service that would enable them to fill out their tax forms online, for example.

And there are concerns that the software platform change, already confirmed by the Government, for ukonline.gov.uk could be in favour of a Microsoft solution.

If this is the case then the Office of the e-Envoy could effectively creating a digital divide of his own making.

Indeed, a quick scan of Microsoft's recent press announcements shows just how cosy Microsoft and the UK Government have become.

In March, Bill Gates shared a platform with the UK's e-Envoy, Andrew Pinder to demonstrate the workings of gateway.gov.uk.

Said Mr Pinder: "Microsoft was part of a team that delivered a world-class enterprise solution - on time and on budget - which has successfully integrated and orchestrated our government IT systems into a central point of access for government services."

Two months later and Mr Pinder popped up in another press release once again speaking highly of Microsoft's Government Gateway solution.

Said Mr Pinder: "This is a project where UK Government had overall project control but Microsoft was the lead contractor and that worked extremely well for us.

"They brought in a group of Microsoft Partners behind them who were seamless to the project and invisible to us - a truly best-of-breed integrated team," he said.

Is it just a matter of time before Mr Pinder is once again quoted singing the praises of Microsoft and its latest contribution to Britain's e-government's revolution? ®

Related stories

MS poised to win rights to UK govt tech for peanuts
e-Envoy to speak at MS-sponsored Digital UK summit
MS-built UK 'Government Gateway' locks out non-MS browsers

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