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Newham ditches IBM OSS trial, but goes to extra time with MS price talks

And is a more widespread public sector 'peasants revolt' brewing?

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Microsoft has emerged from the open source battle in Newham council with a couple of PR victories, but they could prove expensive in the long run. In December Newham, which is one of the leaders in local authority IT in the UK, pulled out of the Office of Government Commerce's open source trials, and has subsequently stated that sticking with Microsoft is its preferred route forward. But crucially, Newham has not yet agreed pricing with Microsoft UK, and there are signs that local authorities, and perhaps even the wider public sector, are beginning to coalesce around Newham.

"We're aware that Microsoft won't do deals with individual organisations," Newham head of ICT Ricard Steel told The Register. Newham has therefore come to a "sort of arrangement" with other councils, and is working via the Society of IT Management, the professional body for local authority IT managers. There appears also to be a certain amount of liaison with the OGC, which is attempting to drive down software costs (with Microsoft as an obvious prime focus) for the whole of the UK public sector. One of the OGC's many problems is that although it can negotiate on behalf of a very large number of organisations with a vast total IT budget, it does not exactly have a nuclear button to press; should Peter Gershon (who we belatedly note copped a CBE in the New Year's Honours List, well done Peter) threaten to take the whole shooting match over to Linux, the constituent organisations will simply ignore him, and he will be carted off by the men in white coats.

Local councils like Newham do have a nuclear button, but it's dangerous to use on your own, and Microsoft UK won't set the precedent of setting a special deal with a single council. So go figure - the not exactly formal, "sort of arrangements" Steel admits to may represent the formation of a kind of public sector trade union with the power to drive down Microsoft prices that the OGC lacks.

Newham itself is treading a narrow path in its talks with Microsoft. In a statement last month, Steel said: "While the growing open source software movement continues to move towards developing a credible alternative upon which to base strategic ICT development, council officers consider that to attempt a major migration at this time would pose an unacceptable level of risk to services."

This conclusion is the basis of his current "preference" to reach agreement with Microsoft. The abandonment of the OGC trial however has little significance. "We were proposed to take part in a trial [of open source] with IBM," says Steel, but ultimately they have declined to do so. Newham's own trials of open source however predate the birth of the OGC's trials, and are still going on. "We are continuing to use these pilots to develop our knowledge of the potential of open source," Steel says, "largely in order to remain an intelligent customer."

What does that make an organisation that runs Windows and doesn't run open source pilots? Unfortunately, we neglected to ask, but you may speculate freely.

The Register understands that Newham is currently considering a number of open source infrastructure proposals, so while (discounts permitting) Microsoft may have headed off the threat of Newham switching to open source desktops, the council is building its knowledge of alternatives at the server end, and this could present longer term problems for Microsoft UK.

Steel's efforts have already had an impact beyond Newham. "Proposals advanced by Microsoft," the statement says, "offer significant benefits, not only for Newham, but also for the wider public sector. These include support for the Local Authority Software Consortium (including the development of Microsoft adapters for its product portfolio), assistance with the implementation of best practice security and patch management standards, plus engagement with the local government business transformation agenda.

"We welcome the work Terry Smith, Director of Public Sector, and his team at Microsoft UK, has been involved in to build the company’s focus on providing solutions for government and their commitment to local government within this.

"The council now considers it has a constructive basis for negotiation on the partnership in Newham, subject to due diligence." ®

Related stories:
UK NHS trials Sun Linux, threatens 800k user defection from MS
MS TCO study fails to dislodge OSS trials from Newham council
Open source not ready for desktop, IBM told UK government

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