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MS moves to counter open source growth in UK gov

In an extremely shrewd way, we reckon

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Faced with the possibility of open source making a damaging breakthrough in UK local government, Microsoft has reacted in the usual way, with strong money. But this time around that money could be being shrewdly spent and - so far so good - there's currently no sign of Steve Ballmer.

One of the organisations involved in the UK government's open source trials is Newham Borough Council, which was already evaluating open source software when the trials were announced, and earlier this year there was a considerable amount of publicity about the possibility of Newham switching its desktops to open source. Microsoft certainly wouldn't welcome any local government losses to open source, but the possibility of losing the desktop is particularly worrying for the company, because that's where it makes an awful lot of money.

Add to that the fact that Newham regards itself as (and OK, possibly is) a leader in local government ICT, and you've got a collision of prestige, visibility, money. Call in the SWAT team. The SWAT team in question is from Cap Gemini Ernst & Young, and has been spotted in some considerable strength by Register sources crawling all over Newham's IT. Computer Weekly reports that this team is carrying out an audit of Newham's IT systems with the objective of showing that Newham's TCO using Microsoft software will be lower than if it goes open source. The exercise is being funded by Microsoft.*

Financially this makes sense for Microsoft because if it can 'prove' its current favourite pitch, which is basically 'spend to save', then it holds Newham without discounting. Weekly says that Microsoft declined to discount, and offered to conduct the study instead.

But if you think about it, it makes even more financial sense to Microsoft on a higher level. Roll back to that government test, then compare what it's supposed to be doing with what Microsoft's doing and what Newham's doing.

Newham is looking for the best, most cost-effective deal, and although it's testing open source software, it's not making the case for open source, open source is merely one of the options it's looking at. IBM, which is running the government pilots, is not making the case for open source either - not as such, not here and not on the same timescale as Newham and Cap Gemini Ernst & Young are working to.

That timescale is likely to start providing results by December, but as the government scheme was only announced a few weeks ago, it's hardly likely to have come up with anything concrete by then. And it's a pilot, not an audit.

So they're two separate things, but they'll inevitably be linked, and if Microsoft succeeds in holding on to Newham, it will have knocked a considerable amount of wind out of the pilot schemes before they've even kicked off properly. That does not mean it will hold on to Newham - borough IT director Richard Steel's description of OpenOffice as a "no-brainer" sounds ominous - but given that Microsoft is spending money on shoring up the franchise, Newham's still one of the smartest places for it to be spending it. ®

* The money for this likely comes from Microsoft's 'stop Linux' slush fund. Microsoft director of government affairs Matt Lambert explains the audit in a contribution to the current issue of Computer Weekly. Essentially, this is "one of several projects we have undertaken to highlight our commitment to analysing our customers' needs and testing the depth and quality of our products and services." So that's all right then, apparently... In this interests of balance, we should note that IBM allegedly offered free consultancy to one of the other organisations taking part in the government pilots. This however was in Tivoli, which the organisation did not use, and had not the slightest intention of using. Doncha just love free stuff? Yum...

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