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NHS IT looks distinctly parrot-like as MS gets in a flap

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NHS IT sickly

Attacking government IT projects is an easy game, but that's no reason not to do it. Especially when the project in question is squeezing billions of pounds from an under-funded and much-loved institution like the NHS - ignoring little points like what a great opportunity the National Project for IT is to improve patient care and free staff from time-consuming paperwork.

But it emerged this week that none of the most basic principles of project management played any role in the planning or implementation of the programme. The Public Accounts Committee wasn't impressed with NPfIT.

Government projects have suffered in the past from senior civil servants moving on before projects are finished. Effectively, careers were rewarded for promising IT projects which would deliver the moon on a stick - senior civil servants then moved up the food chain leaving some poor mug to try pick up the pieces.

The radical solution to this was to appoint a Senior Responsible Owner (SRO) for any project - a place, and a person, for the buck to stop at. Guess what? The NPfIT has had six SROs since 2004. Which wouldn't be a good way to run an office tea trolley, never mind the world's largest technology project.

In the olden days it was also considered a good idea to ask the users of the system you were designing what they would like it to do. This radical idea means you get input to help make a better system.

Believe it or not, doctors and other health professionals know quite a lot about technology and using it within their practices and hospitals - hey, some of them even read The Register. But equally importantly it's a chance to make users feel at least a little bit involved in the project rather than feeling it is being foisted on them. At least pretend you care. But the committee heard that neither of these things had happened. Professor Peter Hutton told the committe he phoned ten people apparently consulted about the project - not one had any memory of providing meanful input.

The last price we have for the project is £6.2bn - and that of course is for its development, not its implementation, because that will be done and paid for locally. So we have a project with no leader, which hasn't consulted its users and therefore doesn't have a proper spec - considering all that, it's actually going rather well.

There's more on NHS IT grief here, and if that doesn't worry you, then what health professionals are doing with your data on mobile devices might. So things were looking bad even before Tony Blair gave it his full backing

Security, people, and the World Cup

Which leads us seamlessly onto security holes of the week - a weekly look at security holes of... err...the week.

Internet Explorer is up first after two more holes are found in the thinking man's colander. This week's holes are proof of concept only - no one has actually used them in an attack.

We also heard that the anti-virus market is now worth some $4bn worldwide and that market is almost equally split by consumer and corporate sales. The increasing importance of selling to punters means more products which just offer security rather than firewall, anti-virus or anti-penetration products. Researchers predict corporate products are likely to follow this commoditised approach.

But we were also reminded that there is something even less secure than Microsoft's browser - people. A call centre worker in Bangalore was arrested over allegations that he'd been helping himself to cash from HSBC customer accounts. The man is accused of pinching £223,000.

This week also saw a 10 year sentence for the Royal Bank of Scotland manager who stole £21m by fraudulently applying for loans. Rumour is that only £11m has been recovered. On the plus side, it was a new computer sytem which helped catch him.

Worse was still to come this week when security problems left Telewest customers unable to watch the World Cup. An hour before England vs Equador kicked off, about 100,000 Telewest customers saw their shiny new plasma screens go blank. Malicious damage to a cable was blamed - it's those humans again - unless it was magpies, they can be very malicious.

Vista kills the Holy Grail

This week it also emerged that Microsoft's ambitions to create a native database for Windows - described in 2003 as "the Holy Grail" - has become the latest victim of the Vista-effect.

Originally, WinFS was to be released for Windows XP or for Vista, when it arrives. But it will now not arrive until 2007, at the earliest, as part of Visual Studio. Microsoft was also criticised for slipping the information out in a blog by product manager Quentin Clark rather than making an announcement at the recent TechEd conference.

It's not been a good week for Microsoft - it released a patch to fix the patch called Windows Genuine Advantage - the little bit of software which phones home to Redmond every morning just to reassure those good people at Microsoft that you haven't got any pirated software on your machine.

Apart from doing this without clearly warning users, WGA has also been picking up lots of false positives - accusing large corporates of running pirated software when they weren't. One of those user groups targeted by WGA was the US Army, which is not known for its sense of humour, but is known for its large guns. Try telling a tank commander he needs to reinstall Windows before getting on with his busy day.

If you were still wondering what the "advantage" is, we leave it to US lawyers who are in the midst of setting up a class action suit for anyone whose feelings were hurt by WGA. Or who dealt with lots of angry users screaming at help desks when their laptops went awry.

There's more here on Windows Disadvantage and here's a simple fix for WGA.

As if upsetting the US Army wasn't bad enough, Microsoft revealed the next version of Office is likely to be late and the company lost yet another senior executive to Google. The general manager of platform evangelism has had a road to Damascus moment and is off to join the Googlers . Let's hope no one's told Steve Ballmer yet.

In other Microsoft bashing news, the rumour mill went into overdrive that the European Commission is poised to hit the firm with record fines for failing to comply with 2004's anti-trust decision. The grapevine, and even the FT, are predicting an announcement next week, but we reckon it'll take longer than that.

Can anyone open this floppy for me?

It's a problem for any business or government department – how do you make sure information stored digitally will be available in years to come? Anyone who's tried to get a VHS tape into a DVD machine will understand the problem.

Parliament's Committee of Constitutional Affairs said this week it was disappointed by the response of DCA minister Baroness Ashton to the problem. The committee said the Baroness had failed to take the issue as a serious threat. Freedom of Information rules won't be much use if no one can access the information in question. More on this here.

But enough of Microsoft's miseries and government screw-ups, some good news at last. The Institute of Food Technologists was told last week that beer is better for you than wine. We trust they were as excited by that news as we were.

Admittedly, the professor in question sits on a chair endowed by Anheuser-Busch – makers of near-beer Budweiser, but it's good enough for us. Beers all round on Saturday at about 4pm?

That's it for now. See you same time, next week. ®

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