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The Almighty Buck

U.S. Asked to Put Purchasing Power to Good Use 492

James Love writes "Today Ralph Nader and I wrote U.S. Office of Management and Budget Director Mitch Daniels to ask the federal government to use its power as a big consumer to address competition issues in the market for PC client software. These are some of the practices we want OMB to examine: OMB is asked to provide information on federal expenditures for Microsoft products, determine if a software "monoculture" makes the federal government more vulnerable to computer viruses or unauthorized access to federal computers, and to consider a number of strategies to use the US government's purchasing power to promote competition and make Microsoft behave; OMB is asked to consider if Microsoft should be required (as a matter of procurement policy) to fully disclose the file formats of its office productivity and multimedia programs, so that the data created in such programs could be reliably read by non-Microsoft software; OMB is asked to consider if it should place a cap of the market share for any one vendor of PC client software, and have the size of the cap depend upon Microsoft's willingness to open up its interface information, or port its MS Office products to additional platforms; OMB is also asked to consider if it would be more efficient to buy code for office productivity products (and release into the public domain), rather than spend billions to lease software."
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U.S. Asked to Put Purchasing Power to Good Use

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  • by Anonymous Coward on Tuesday June 04, 2002 @01:18PM (#3639029)

    BBC News [bbc.co.uk] reports that IBM [ibm.com] has signed a major contract to provide GNU/Linux OS computers to Germany's Interior Ministry, which oversees law enforcement ( IBM signs Linux deal with Germany [bbc.co.uk] ). A Microsoft [microsoft.com] spokeswoman was disconcerted by the news, nonsensically stating that, "Any policy that favours one thing over another isn't helpful." Slashdot [slashdot.org] ( Germany, IBM Sign Major Linux Deal [slashdot.org] ).

    Kuro5hin [kuro5hin.org] has a good story on a new report from Taiwan's official news agency that the goverment is pushing a Software Libre program ( Taiwan to start national plan to push free software [kuro5hin.org] ). Not only will the program include software development, but also extensive training and education. Most interesting is that the "national education system will switch to Open Source in order to provide a diverse IT education environment and ensure the people's rights to freedom of information." See also, Slashdot ( Taiwan to Start National Push For Free Software [slashdot.org] ).

    Might Taiwan's initiative be related to a ZDNet News [com.com] report on some of the difficulties Microsoft's licensing practices are creating in Taiwan ( Taiwan: MS may have violated trade laws [zdnet.co.uk] )? This issue was discussed in depth on Kuro5hin ( Backlash against Microsoft intensifies in Taiwan; MS investigated for price gouging [kuro5hin.org] ).

    Governments outside the U.S. are increasingly coming to the realization that it makes little sense to send their taxpayer dollars to Redmond, WA, USA as part of a "Microsoft Tax." Use of open source software not only saves the government money, but also helps to develop an indigenous IT industry.

    Will the U.S. government realize the benefits of openness as well? Jamie Love [cptech.org], of the Consumer Project on Technology [cptech.org] hopes so. He and Ralph Nader have sent a letter to the Office of Management and Budget [whitehouse.gov] encouraging the consideration of various policies that, through software procurement, will address quesions of Microsoft's monopoly as well as other issues ( Procurement policy and competition and security in software markets [cptech.org] ). While the letter doesn't specifically recommend the adoption of open source software, it clearly a major aspect to consider.

    Below are some of the practices Nader and Love want OMB to examine:

    • OMB is asked to provide information on federal expenditures for Microsoft products, determine if a software "monoculture" makes the federal government more vulnerable to computer viruses or unauthorized access to federal computers, and to consider a number of strategies to use the US government's purchasing power to promote competition and make Microsoft behave.
    • OMB is asked to consider if Microsoft should be required (as a matter of procurement policy) to fully disclose the file formats of its office productivity and multimedia programs, so that the data created in such programs could be reliably read by non-Microsoft software.
    • OMB is asked to consider if it should place a cap of the market share for any one vender of PC client software, and have the size of the cap depend upon Microsoft's willingness to open up its interface information, or port its MS Office products to additional platforms.
    • OMB is also asked to consider if it would be more efficient to buy code for office productivity products (and release into the public domain), rather than spend billions to lease software.

    Ralph Nader said "The federal government spends billions of dollars on software purchases from one company that is continually raising prices, making its products incompatible with previous versions in order to force upgrades, deliberately creating interoperability problems with would-be competitors, and is well known for engaging in many other anticompetitive practices. Would a business that was spending this much money be such a passive consumer? "

    James Love said "The US Government could easily solve all of its concerns over the Microsoft's anticompetitive conduct by being a smarter consumer. Taxpayers are spending millions to restrain Microsoft's monopoly, and billions to support the Microsoft monopoly. There needs to be a more coherent strategy."

    Copyright (c) 2002 by the Information Society Project. This material may be distributed only subject to the terms and conditions set forth in the Open Publication License, v1.0 or later (the latest version is presently available at http://www.opencontent.org/openpub/). Minor typographical corrections made.

    • If Nader declares "Americans should never dress up like Carmen Miranda in public", you'd start seeing fruit salads over every Republican's head.
      • If Nader declares "Americans should never dress up like Carmen Miranda in public", you'd start seeing fruit salads over every Republican's head.

        Hehe that wasn't what I was expecting in the post, and kinda invalidates my argument, BUT, as much as it doesn't seem like people listen to Nader (I don't), I do know this: The squeaky wheel gets the grease. (That sentence inspired by Douglas Adams.)

        Whether or not your loudest most obnosious user is correct, management dictates that their gripes will be taken care of, whether you really can or not.

        At some point, some of what he says will make sense, and action will be taken (purchase caps on proprietary software is a nifty idea.)

  • by nehril ( 115874 ) on Tuesday June 04, 2002 @01:21PM (#3639053)
    this kind of thing is what MS fears most: one of the world's largest "customers" jumping into the GPL'd software ring. that would not only give alternatives an enormous confidence boost in the eyes of other businesses, but it would start a massive trickle down effect, as all the companies that the government does business with now need to be "compliant" with something not of Redmond.

    this is why MS seems to be fighting gpl anything in the US Government tooth and nail. with bsd-style lincenses microsoft could just take the code for little or no effort, and continue to ride on their reputation (nobody ever got fired for buying Microsoft), but GPL locks them out nice and tight.
    • by Anonymous Coward
      The GPL in no way locks Microsoft out. They could gather up the source code and ship MSLinux tomorrow if they were so inclined. They could even mix in some of their own software to preserve their Monopoly, similar to what Apple's OSX has done with Darwin and BSD.

      Of course, don't expect to see it done any time soon. They have a lot of money invested in their current windows architecture. They also have a long history of forking or restarting projects and standards such that they don't have to be accountable or compatable with other people.

      • If they were to do that, there would be no way that they could make the kind of profit on MSLinux or any gpled software that they do now.

        As you said, their embrace and extend tactic would not work with GPLed software. Which is a great thing about GPL software.
      • The Problem with that is, that people would note that even MS got on the Linux-train. Once they do this they'd have a hard time to explain why the GPL is "unamerican", only not when used by Microsoft.

        Also anyone looking into buying MSLinux is even more likely to consider buying Redhat/debian/etc., so that move could boost Linux in general and hurt Windows even more.

        Finally Microsoft would have to play on a more level playing field, and what's even more important: until now they didn't figure out how to skew the "GPLd Software" playing field to their advantage. Locking customers in with proprietary file formats won't work here, it's harder to aim the FUD-cannon when they're playing in the same arena, and it's really hard to enforce licence restrictions on the users of GPLd Software.
  • by Matt2000 ( 29624 ) on Tuesday June 04, 2002 @01:22PM (#3639059) Homepage
    We've been seeing more stories about Governments either being petitioned to change their software buying policies, or mandate certain buying policies for their various departments.

    The problem is that the mandates seem somewhat disconnected by technical reality and what software works best in a situation. My suggestion is that perhaps what should be mandated is a minimum standard of interoperability between systems, and a minimum level of openness about the mechanics through which the software achieves the interoperability.

    So for example, the US gov't could specify that any productivity suite purchased by it's departments must support completely an open standard file format of their choosing or design. If MS Office chooses to support that file format properly, that there is no cap on how many units of MS Office could be purchased. If they choose not to, then it cannot be considered.

    If that policy were applied to many different software application areas then it would quickly matter less where the software came from, and would start to matter more how good the software was.
    • The big goal isn't the government using good software, it's hurting MS.
    • for example, the US gov't could specify that any productivity suite purchased by it's departments must support completely an open standard file format of their choosing or design.

      How would you actually enforce that? I can see a few potential problems:

      1. Unless the specification for these standard file formats is very precise, there will always be interoperability problems.

      2. Even if the office software "supports" a standard format, it obviously isn't going to default to that format, so you'll have to deal with the training issues (always use "save as...").

      3. Microsoft (or any other commercial vendor) would claim that they need to be able to modify or extend the "standard" format in order to be able to innovate new features. This is actually a valid complaint, and difficult to work around. If you allow proprietary extensions to a standard format, it's no longer truly standard.

      I still think this is a good idea, I just suspect that it'd be a whole lot of work to define these standard formats such that they meet the needs of the government and also those of the software vendors.

      -Mark

      • 1. Unless the specification for these standard file formats is very precise, there will always be interoperability problems.

        If there's one thing gov't can do, it's spec the hell out of something. I don't think this would be a problem if they addressed it in earnest.


        2. Even if the office software "supports" a standard format, it obviously isn't going to default to that format, so you'll have to deal with the training issues (always use "save as...").

        Why can't it default to that format? Make that a part of the spec? And is it that hard to 'Save As'? That may be a loaded question ;)


        3. Microsoft (or any other commercial vendor) would claim that they need to be able to modify or extend the "standard" format in order to be able to innovate new features. This is actually a valid complaint, and difficult to work around. If you allow proprietary extensions to a standard format, it's no longer truly standard.

        So make that part of the deal too - if MS has a way to make it better, sweet! Just make the additional spec open as well. No proprietary crap allowed.


        I think the parent comment is ingenious and hope to see it pushed loudly.

        KM

      • How would you actually enforce that? I can see a few potential problems:

        I disagree. I can't see why software should be any different than other complex systems. The government routinely specifies the size, shape, and functionality of the things they purchase.

        The military for example, specifies that MREs must be a certain size, a certain weight, and have a certain number of calories. Companies who complain that they must be allowed to "innovate" are laughed at.

        Police departments specify that their cars must have very specific performance characteristics. Companies that say "we can't be forced to alter the product we already make" are similarly laughed at.

        Why is software any different? Is it just because there is currently a monopoly?

        Part of the problem I think is that software hasn't been a real priority as far as purchasing goes in the past. In my experience, software purchases are made at lower levels of management. There, decisions are made based on what can be bought at CompUSA. It's no wonder Microsoft Office ends up on everybody's machines.

        Perhaps if the BSA cracks down on the government a little, they'll see the benefit in providing better guidance to those who make software purchases. Perhaps that will finally drive those purchases away from Microsoft's monopoly.
        • "Perhaps if the BSA cracks down on the government a little, they'll see the benefit in providing better guidance to those who make software purchases. Perhaps that will finally drive those purchases away from Microsoft's monopoly."

          Interesting point. Perhaps now might be a good time for Open Source sympathetic government employees to report any 'piracy' they've seen in the government to the BSA....

          • report any 'piracy' they've seen in the government

            I was never once in a unit that had licenses for all its software. Once I was the information management officer for an entire battalion. I keep all the software licenses in a big binder and for any software that didn't have licenses, I wrote official requests for the funds to purchase them and kept those in the binder too. That was me covering my own ass.

            There's actually a funny story here. I was short several licenses of Win95 but nobody sold those anymore. I called Microsoft and told them I wanted X Win95 licenses. They offered to sell me WinME or Win2K but these machines didn't have the horsepower. Finally, they offered to sell me licenses for windows 98 at, get this *higher prices* than ME because "they no longer supported it." So I paid *several* *hundred* *dollars* more of *your* *tax* *money* than I should have and what did I actually receive in the mail? I single piece of paper from MS with the words "authorized to use X copies of Windows 98" written on it.

            I gave MS money to print me a sheet of paper. It didn't even have the laser hologram on it!

            Ah those were the days.

            At least I was able to keep licenses from machines that we threw away. As I was leaving, we were buying new machines that came with Win2K and had the license on a sticker on the box. No more binders! Now when you throw away the machine you throw away the license too.
      • 1. Unless the specification for these standard file formats is very precise, there will always be interoperability problems.


        Additionally, even if the specification is complete and unambiguous (which no specification is), the implementations will always be incomplete in some respect. I've been working on an ISO-standard file format implementation this past year, and, while I agree that standards are noble and neccessary, I'm becoming convinced that 100% system interoperability is a pipe dream.

        The main reason that 100% interoperability is not achievable is cost. Good software is very expensive, but perfect software is almost prohibitively expensive (study, design, implement, test, study, fix, test, study, redesign, .........)
      • How would you actually enforce that?
        It's actually very easy.

        For text-based files, require them to be XML, and that the Schemas be published.

        For binary files, specs already have to be precise (whether the spec is published or not) for reliable operation. And as far as extension goes, mandate that any extensions to the file format be made using specific extension semantics imposed by the format itself (i.e., reserved bits w/ a standards body allocating those bits to registered extensions, mandated publication of the semantics of the extensions, etc).

    • Government policy decisions are rarely based on "what works best," because it is the public's money they are spending. The question from a public policy viewpoint, is, is the government providing a huge (and unfair) market advantage to a particular contractor (Microsoft), and treating them differently than other contractors (any defence contractor, for instance)? If so, should that contractor be regulated carefully? Or should there be less favoritism and more standardization (as with defense contracts, where the complete plans for a widget/aircraft/etc are turned over to the government, and work is spread among contractors)?
    • Mod Parent Up [streamsicle.com] by CmdrTaco (Score: 2) 02:41 PM April 2nd, 2002

      I love it. Brilliant hack.

      • Yes, very clever indeed. I sure fell for it, and it took me a minute to figure it out.

        But what I'd like to know is why the sig doesn't appear under IE. In fact, comparing the source produced by both browsers, its not the same. Its like IE ignores the <ul> tag and everything within it.
  • The_Point (Score:2, Insightful)

    by 1155 ( 538047 )
    What is the point here? I got koffice installed by default, and then I have star office somewhere, and then there is open office, and abiword, etc. There are plenty of office products, for free, that the government could use and not pay a dime for. I don't think I want to use my tax dollars for microsoft office, and I don't think anyone else does either.

    If we have to though, because they don't want to spend millions of dollars on retraining a work force on how to use one version of office over another, I do believe that the government has the right to ask for the source code. HOw else would they know their vulnerabilities with e-mails like "I love you" and "Wanna see this horse go at it with a squirrel" causing billions of dollars in computer damage, not to hardware in general, but in software and peace of mind.

    Which would you decide?
  • by Anonymous Coward on Tuesday June 04, 2002 @01:25PM (#3639085)
    U.S. Office of Management and Budget Director Mitch Daniels opens the letter, replies with a very wordy letter whose 'jist' is "We'll look into it", and puts the file in the "review" basket (aka the trash can).

    Welcome to America, where your letter is viewed, but dismissed unless you have a large audience of constituents backing you. This is how democracy works, for something to happen, a large group must support it.
    • I would say that Nader has a large enough constituency, and has proven himself capable of making enough noise, that his letters are not summarily round-filed.

      Just a guess, but I don't think any government official is eager to be portrayed as being wasteful of taxpayers money. Particularly not Republicans, since that is the main way in which they differentiate themselves from the Democrats.

    • Welcome to America, where your letter is viewed, but dismissed unless you have a large audience of constituents backing you.

      Are you kidding me? You do understand that Ralph Nader is the man who brought Detroit to their knees at the height of their influence and power don't you?

      I would venture to say that his influence is enough to cause serious change.

      Stop being so damned cynical and participate in the process. If you feel disenfranchised in America, it is most likely because you spend more time on /. bitching than acutally doing the hard things it takes to make real change.

  • OMB should also consider if dominant office productivity tools, including word processing, spreadsheets and presentation graphics, should be required to provide high quality ports to other operating systems, including platforms such as Linux or the BeOS.
    First of all I do not miss MS Office. I think it is a better solution (legally and financially) to make MS not port its code (If the govt can tell them to do that, then they may as well just control them all together) but instead to open up it's office formats. Open Office is fine. I use it all the time and in some ways its better than MS Office (especially it's handling of corupted files). Anyway, the linux port idea I can understand because we all know linux is the big buzzword now but Beos? Haha... thats hilarious. First of all the develeopment of the OS doesn't exist anymore (yes the OS technically exist but its not going to get any better). Maybe they can force Microsoft to write some drivers so that Beos is usable and then port MS Office to it.
  • by Civil_Disobedient ( 261825 ) on Tuesday June 04, 2002 @01:26PM (#3639103)
    OMB is asked to examine whether Microsoft source code should be provided to the general public; OMB also requests that the days be made longer, that marijuana should be legalized, that there should be world peace, and that the Supreme Court should have made him president instead.

    Please file this additional document under "D" for Delusional.
    • Why is this request so "Delusional".

      If the U.S. can use it's purchasing power to promote innovation then it's a good thing.

      More competition will create better competition and more innovation (it is the reason we have a capitalist system; right? It is the reason that we have anti-trust laws; true?).

      It isn't too far fetched that we ask for some changes in the way our government works. I mean, why vote/write congress-people/have Fr1st Amendment?

      This is a task that we can undertake. Using software which doesn't cause us to spend more tax money is a Good Thing. We could start by not using Microsoft's Office software because it's viral and it becomes a situation where everyone has to have it. An open, standards based document sharing format, even on those costly Windows machines would be a start. [Use a WYSIWYG HTML editor, RTF, OpenOffice, ...]

      I really hope your comment was a pure joke. Of course marijuana could be legal...

      At least someone is trying to do something instead of just crying about what won't happen.
      • Please file this additional document under "D" for Delusional.

      Looks like Nader is starting his 2004 campaign early.

      If anything, this kind of request will make certain the administration does anything but what is being asked.

      Can you imagine the hue and cry of Conservative Republicans if Nader's policies were implemented, regardless of what they were?

      On the other hand, Nader actually does have some leverage as a King-maker. I'm sure the Republicans would do a lot to bring him into the 2004 race and the Democrats would do a lot to keep him out. Either way, he has considerable bargaining power.

  • Role of Government (Score:5, Insightful)

    by sheldon ( 2322 ) on Tuesday June 04, 2002 @01:27PM (#3639112)
    Some good points are raised here. Documentation on file formats should be a required aspect of any product, simply because one of the challenges faced with computers is evolving your old data to new systems over time.

    I don't agree that the government should be in the role of creating software. Government is not a good entity to choose technologies the free market should adopt. As far as software purchasing costs, you could make a strong argument for companies to provide reduced rates to government entities. But one should also appreciate that the tax dollars outlayed on software is more than made up by the tax revenues coming in as a result of the employment opportunties the software companies generate.
    • Government is not a good entity to choose technologies the free market should adopt.

      What about Energy Star? This was a government requirement that would never have been adopted in a standard manner by the industry if not for the purchasing power of Uncle Sam.

    • by ftobin ( 48814 ) on Tuesday June 04, 2002 @01:50PM (#3639317) Homepage

      I don't agree that the government should be in the role of creating software.

      Yeah, heaven forbid that some research instituation like the NCSA comes up with another revolutionizing piece of software like Mosaic. Don't lump the government as you do; the research arms of the government great at developing new things.

    • I don't agree that the government should be in the role of creating software. Government is not a good entity to choose technologies the free market should adopt.

      You are absolutely correct, when speaking of government as an entity that enforces law. The problem is that government is also an administrative behemoth that uses a lot of computers. It is like other large corporations in this regard, and from a purchasing viewpoint, it should behave with maximum selfishness.

      But one should also appreciate that the tax dollars outlayed on software is more than made up by the tax revenues coming in as a result of the employment opportunties the software companies generate.

      Could you please explain how that's possible? If the government pays Microsoft for one man-year worth of work (let's call it $100k), how does this generate more than $100k of tax revenue?

      And if the government hires a non-Microsoft contractor to do the same work but where the government ends up owning the code, or the code is effectively PD due to being released under GPL, is the tax revenue less?

    • by milo_Gwalthny ( 203233 ) on Tuesday June 04, 2002 @02:26PM (#3639627)
      Well, it looks like Microsoft paid $2.158 billion in taxes in 2001 (that's *paid*, tax expense was $3.804 billion, but that's a pretty much meaningless accounting entry given the $2 billion in tax benefit that MS got because of the stock options it issued.) That doesn't include the taxes paid by and on behalf of the employees of the company.

      But, offsetting the amount the US government pays against the anmount of tax MS pays assumes that without the US government, MS would be unprofitable. That is probably not true.

      What does make sense it to say that whenever the US government buys something, it gets back 35% of the pre-tax contribution to income of that item. Since MS's costs are not a direct function of their revenue (ie. they are mainly fixed costs), we can assume that the US government gets back about 35% of what it pays in licenses.

      Perhaps you are arguing that MS is too big to fail? That, like Boeing, it needs government patronage to survive? That would be scary indeed.
    • Government is not a good entity to choose technologies the free market should adopt.

      You seem to forget that the POSIX standard thrived mainly because at one time all federally-bought computers had to adhere to that standard (IIRC).

  • by metacosm ( 45796 ) on Tuesday June 04, 2002 @01:28PM (#3639119)
    I think the true "key to the kingdom" is in the file formats. People are scared to break away from MS file formats more than anything, they are a powerful force in keeping MS in a dominate position.

    If the formats where standardized (in lets say XML) it would greatly reduce EVERYONES dependacy on MS.

    The government has an even greater reason to fear MS file formats. That reason is REALLY OLD DATA. The government needs to be able to work with extremely old file formats, and if that file format is not standard and has simply been "retired" by a company (MS) they are shit out of luck, and will end up making another company you rich for converting those "Word 2000" docs to "BobbySoft QuickEdit 2035".
    • If you think that's bad, you should know that the government is moving more and more towards storing documents in Adobe .PDF format.

      It's not the same as MS, but certainly every bit as proprietary.
    • File formats are only a part of the puzzle.

      Another piece of the puzzle is protocols, such as SAMBA and the protocol Exchange uses for it's groupware functionality.
  • by goldspider ( 445116 ) <ardrake79@noSpam.gmail.com> on Tuesday June 04, 2002 @01:28PM (#3639121) Homepage
    As I have mentioned before, I work for the Department of the Navy, and I have seen some deals in progress around here that perhaps is worthy of some scrutiny.

    Recently the DoN signed a contract with a company called EDS to essentially transfer all ownership of the Navy and Marine Corps intranet over to this private-sector company. When this transition occurs, all but a few servers, and all DoN workstations and networking hardware will become EDS property. EDS will be replacing it with their own, and sell the old equipment, surely at a profit.

    Aside from the several million dollars EDS stands to get from the government contract, they stand to make a pretty penny on some absurd service contracts, let alone what they are getting for selling off our old equipment.

    I suspect this is another instance of back-scratching (you know, "You scratch my back, and I'll scratch yours) that makes no business sense at all. Perhaps this warrants some closer attention as well.
    • Recently the DoN signed a contract with a company called EDS


      That company called EDS is what made Ross Perot his billions. He no longer runs it, but he made sure before he left that they had plenty of tight connections with the military. Ross was in the Navy himself, Academy class of '53 or something like that. EDS is a huge corporation (remember the cat-herding commercial in the super-bowl 2 years ago? That was them.) I had an interview with their web-development team in Texas, and let me tell you, that place is run like a military operation. Gate Guards, ID checks all over the place, all forms in triplicate. Not really relevant information, I know, just interesting stuff. ;)

    • "A company called EDS" is probably the single funniest comment I've ever read on Slashdot. I don't see how anyone could be in this business and not know who EDS is. It's Ross Perot's company. It's one of the biggest contracting/consulting (if not the biggest) firms in the world. You make it sound like a dude some admirial knows who has an office at the strip mall and a Dell.
    • And once everything is outsourced and all of the critical data lives on servers that are not owned by the DOD, THEN the fun will begin.

      New project? Not in the contract. We'll let you know when we'll even answer and how much we'll gouge you for working on it. It not like we have to deliver a competitive bid is it?

      Something's broke? Sorry - fixing that is not spelled out in the contract. It'll cost you to fix it. No, it doesn't matter that YOU used to handle this with no sweat. Not in the contract.

      Been there. Watched that. Worked on undoing it. ( It was a different three-letter outsourcing company, but he same song.) The bosses thought they'd save money. Current IT budget X. The outsource contract is bid as 0.9 X. The work they'll do, which IS specified in the contract is 0.4 of what we did for X.

      I once saw a lawyer carrying the actual contract. It looked like the Oxford Engligh Dictionary. Amazingly though, every new hire entry-level desktop tech KNEW what wasn't in there.

      You're doomed.
  • I'm glad to see that this kind of scrutiny is becoming more popular. It has been kind an annoying irony that the Justice Dept has been suing M$ while the US Govt. continues to buy their products.

    There's always talk among our elected officials that government spending needs to be controlled and that competitive bidding and cost analysis should be used to arrive at the most fiscally responsible solution. Of course, anybody who has seen the money spent through the defense budget knows that there is a lot of room for improvement.

    I'm not real optimistic that this will lead to reforms, but at least it may bring the huge amount of money wasted each year into the spotlight. Remember that our elected officials don't make decisions without substantial money and lobbying involved, and in Microsoft's case that expense will be passed right back to the taxpayers.

    Still, with the high-profile government endorsements of Open source in Peru, Germany, and other places, the pressure is increasingly on Microsoft to justify their huge cost and diminishing returns. If nothing else, maybe we'll get a better deal from them.
  • by reaper20 ( 23396 ) on Tuesday June 04, 2002 @01:31PM (#3639147) Homepage
    I'd like to see this as a win for OSS. As a government contractor constantly looking for ways to bring linux into my workplace, I can tell you that there is still a long way to go before the government rolls out OSS or any non-Microsoft product on a broad level.

    Things like Networthiness Policies, Security, and red tape make it difficult. Especially when you have mutiple agencies under different chains-of-command, so don't think that when "The Federal Government approves use of OSS" comes around that the individual fiefdoms will be mass migrating over to Linux/Apache/whatever.

    Somewhere in the US Government, people are running Apache as their production webserver. My agency only uses IIS, Apache is not on the 'networthiness' list for this location, so no Apache for me. It's great that the NSA has made their own hardened version of Linux, but here, the security guys says only WindowsNT (not even 2000 yet) is the only approved OS secure enough for our network. Now, multiply this across ALL the federal/state/local agencies.

    Even if it was mandated for the government to use OSS, it would take YEARS of retraining people to use this stuff, keeping in mind that alot of the government systems are still running Novell 3.x.

    The way to win government (which is my approach), is to influence your specific area, and push it from the bottom to the top. It's one thing to sit there and say "Noone should use default IIS/2000 installs for a production environment". It's a totally different thing to review the existing policies and change them, document them, sending them through committe, and then deploying. (Believe me, it sucks.)

    On the other hand, things like this help, another government law that has really helped OSS is Section 508 (The accessability laws). At first, I hated them, tons of pages and web apps still need to be rewritten - how does this benefit open source? 508 happens to read almost word for word with the W3C guidelines, which means that alot of government pages and applications now work in Konq/Mozilla. Good Stuff.
    • This is the location of the NSA recommendations for securing Windows 2000:

      http://nsa2.www.conxion.com/win2k/

      Your post seems to be an example of the right hand not knowing what the left hand is doing, as the NSA has already done what you suggested.
    • by Slak ( 40625 )
      Using procurement in this fashion is an interesting tactic. How does OMB account for GPL "purchases"?
  • by rkent ( 73434 ) <{ude.dravrah.tsop} {ta} {tnekr}> on Tuesday June 04, 2002 @01:31PM (#3639149)
    "Today Ralph Nader and I wrote U.S. Office of Management and Budget Director Mitch Daniels to ask the federal government to use its power as a big consumer to address competition issues in the market for PC client software.

    Um... okay, but is it really the perogative of the OMB to "use its power" that way? According to the OMB's own site [whitehouse.gov], it "evaluates the effectiveness of agency programs, policies, and procedures, assesses competing funding demands among agencies, and sets funding priorities." In other words, it's an executive agency designed to ensure that the US taxpayers get the most bang for their buck, efficiency-wise, not to make political statements about reforming corporate behavior. That said,

    These are some of the practices we want OMB to examine: OMB is asked to provide information on federal expenditures for Microsoft products, determine if a software "monoculture" makes the federal government more vulnerable to computer viruses or unauthorized access to federal computers,

    ... this is still a good idea. Seems like the OMB would be entirely interested in making sure that computers and software bought with fed dollars aren't going to be easily hacked.

    and to consider a number of strategies to use the US government's purchasing power to promote competition and make Microsoft behave;

    But this, no no no. This is still a judicial matter, and any penalty against MS is going to be determined in court. An executive agency would be way overstepping its bounds here.

    OMB is asked to consider if Microsoft should be required (as a matter of procurement policy) to fully disclose the file formats of its office productivity and multimedia programs, so that the data created in such programs could be reliably read by non-Microsoft software

    Yargh! But THIS is another good idea. Again, it's in the financial interest of the country to make sure we're not "locked in" to certain contractors who could then baloon their prices. Not that that ever happens...

    So basically, I think there are some good ideas here with regard to protecting the federal government's investment in software and making sure they're not going down any paths simply because MS wants them to, but trying to wreck the monopoly just isn't in the charter of the OMB. Sorry.

    • True that the OMB is not really supposed to be trying to move the economy one way or another, nor are they supposed to be acting as judge/executioner in the anti-trust action. However, as you yourself pointed out, they do have plenty of legitimate reasons to ask for changes from Microsoft or move away from a single dominant vendor, none of which have to do with punishing the company. In this case, the only difference is in the stated motivation for making the changes.

      So long as they can provide justified reasons for the change, if their actions have a side effect of breaking up the monopoly and helping build up the OSS culture and functionality of current free products, so much the better. It will end up being a good thing for the country overall.

      The problem is keeping anti-Microsoft rhetoric out of the debate and staying focused on solid reasons for change.

    • and to consider a number of strategies to use the US government's purchasing power to promote competition and make Microsoft behave;

      But this, no no no. This is still a judicial matter, and any penalty against MS is going to be determined in court. An executive agency would be way overstepping its bounds here.

      I disagree. While Microsoft's misconduct *is* a judicial matter, the United States government can participate in the market just like any other entity.

      Automakers like the Big Three do this all the time to auto suppliers, even large suppliers, because they have *huge* purchasing power. Automakers will split their purchases across a variety of suppliers for the same part to spur competition, drive down prices, and basically to keep options open in case one supplier or another comes up with some breakthrough cost reduction or technology improvement.

      In fact, MBAs study purchasing power as one aspect of Porter's five forces [quickmba.com] to determine how fast a firm in an industry can grow (what kind of stock returns it may show). In addition to purchasing power (buyer power), there are
      1. Supplier Power (can affect anyone who builds their technology on top of Microsoft's proprietary technologies)
      2. Threat of substitutes (Microsoft's fear of Linux will increase as the cost of switching to Linux decreases)
      3. Barriers to entry (usually pretty low in the tech industry generally, but companies can build these over time by having better technology (cool) or by lobbying for laws that make it harder for companies to compete against them (not cool, unless you own stock in the current market leader))
      4. Rivalry (how fiercely the existing firms compete -- the bursting of the tech bubble cut the number of competitors, but those who are left are fighting hard ... although it sometimes seems that Microsoft is escaping this effect)

      Combined, these factors represent capitalism at work, to the potential detriment of Microsoft and to the potential benefit of the rest of the market.

      Going back to just the application of purchasing power, this may be a good idea for the government if the goal is to protect itself from risks, enhance efficiency, and all the other good parts of a market orientation. This is a bad idea if the goal is to 'screw Microsoft' or otherwise achieve political ends -- presented that way, you'll have all kinds of companies pestering the government to 'spur competition' in their neck of the woods.
    • Governments *do* and *should* try to use their purchasing power for the public good, whenever it's practical. In many cases, there are several competing products in the same price range that would all do the job as well. So why not spend the money where it has the greatest number of positive side effects?

      An example of this is the purchase of fleet vehicles- postal Jeeps, police cars, etc. Usually, by law, these must be American cars. This helps the American auto industry, provides jobs, generates wealth, more tax revenue, etc.

      In other cases, such as with the defense industry, the money spent there subsidizes civilian aviation, providing jobs, etc., but also enabling commerce with more affordable passenger and cargo jets.

      Similarly, spending money on OSS not only gives the government/taxpayers better value, it also enables commerce by spurring development of more OSS- which everyone can use, for free! This is an investment in our future, just like building highways. Furthermore, it provides more building blocks for even more OSS.

      Keep this in mind: the reason Microsoft has been able to make so much money is that its products make other businesses more efficient, enabling so much more commerce. But imagine how much more wealth would be created if the money earmarked for Microsoft, however relatively little, could be spent generating more business instead. Look at a typical company's IT budget vs. its marketing budget, and you'll see what I mean.
    • and to consider a number of strategies to use the US government's purchasing power to promote competition and make Microsoft behave;
      But this, no no no. This is still a judicial matter, and any penalty against MS is going to be determined in court. An executive agency would be way overstepping its bounds here.

      Not if pushing Microsoft is viewed as a means to an end. OMB's reason for making Microsoft compete, wouldn't be to help consumers. OMB's reason for making Microsoft compete, would be to act in OMB's self-interest. This is for procurement purposes, not antitrust purposes. That the two seperate interests happen to be compatable, is irrelevant.

  • As a Taxpayer.. (Score:5, Insightful)

    by RailGunner ( 554645 ) on Tuesday June 04, 2002 @01:32PM (#3639152) Journal
    As a taxpayer, I want the hard earned money that the Imperial Federal Government takes from me to not be squandered. I want the Government to be a good steward with MY money, and not waste it as much as they do.

    And I consider the purchase of a buggy, insecure, bloated Operating System like Windows a waste of my money. When some Government clerk is just typing up documents on a PC, why do they need a copy of Windows (and presumably Office) when Linux and KOffice or OpenOffice, etc, will do the exact same thing at a fraction of the cost?

    I'd much prefer if the government used free, open source operating systems as much as possible, saving taxpayer money and eventually getting me another tax cut (because 4 months is too long to work just to pay your taxes).

    Cause it's our damn money, after all.

  • It's about time (Score:5, Interesting)

    by vrmlguy ( 120854 ) <samwyse@g[ ]l.com ['mai' in gap]> on Tuesday June 04, 2002 @01:32PM (#3639155) Homepage Journal
    With several other governments (Peru, Germany, Mexico, China) deciding that open source software makes better sense than closed, I've been wondering if/when the US would follow suit. I'm under no illusion that this letter will trigger an immediate change of OMB policies; Microsoft has too many lobbyists for that to happen overnight. However, it will serve to get the ball rolling.

    This is also an excellent time for the US-based portion of our community to follow up with our congressional representatives on this issue. Remember, both the House and the Senate place very little stock in email. If you want to get their attention, use either snail-mail or fax, as detailed above. Snail-mail only costs about $1, fax is even cheaper.

    1. Go here [usps.com] and get your ZIP+4 code.
    2. Go here [house.gov] and identify your Congressperson.
    3. When you click on the "Contact My Representative" button, you will be taken to a form. Ignore it. Instead, click on the link for your Representative and go to their homepage. Hopefully, they will have contact information someplace where you can find it. Copy it into your favorite word-processor.
    4. Go here [senate.gov] and identify your Senators. Again, we hope that they make it easy to find their contact information.
    5. If you are thinking ahead, save three "empty" letters, addressed to each of the above. This will save time the next time you need to write.
    6. Use your word processor to write an essay explaining your position. Be verbose. Copy this into each of the three letters you prepared above.
    7. If you found any fax numbers (and your computer can print-to-fax!) send copies of your letter that way. Otherwise, print it out and send it by regular mail.
    Here's a suggested outline for the text of your letter (and, no, I'm not going to write it for you, staffers can spot a form letter a mile away):
    1. What problem would new OMB policies solve?
    2. How well would they solve the problem?
    3. What new problems would they add?
    4. What are the economic and social costs?
    5. Given the above, is it worth the cost?
  • ...so, in a nutshell, Nader is saying that the government should make an effort to influence the marketplace in a certain direction, rather than letting natural market forces dictate what heppens (questionable/illegal business practices being part of the market).

    I'd love to see the rise of Open Source, the fall of Microsoft, etc, as much as the next guy. But I don't want the government using my tax dollars to achieve that (except in antitrust and other legal manners).

    The government should research carefully and buy what makes sense. However, no matter how much we all like Microsoft alternatives, in things like office suites, it's disengenuous to argue that there's a viable non-microsoft solution for what amounts to a company of over a million employees. What kinds of deployment and management tools do open source software suites have? How many IT workers are trained to install/troubleshoot them?

    Governments in general, and the US government in particular, can just *barely* do their job as is. Asking them to take a leadership role in IT purchasing is like asking Microsoft to take a leadership role in corporate ethics. It ain't going to happen, and the attempt would be an expensive, error-infested waste of time and money for everyone involved.

    My opinion is that open source will prevail in the long run -- but I'd rather wait 10 years longer if it meant not setting the precedent of government setting this kind of precedent.

    Cheers
    -b
    • by reaper20 ( 23396 ) on Tuesday June 04, 2002 @01:51PM (#3639325) Homepage
      But I don't want the government using my tax dollars to achieve that (except in antitrust and other legal manners).

      Yes, it does suck that the government has to "get involved", but at the same time, I pay ALOT of money in taxes.

      The government should not force, anyone to do anything, but as a stakeholder(taxpayer), I'd be damn pissed if the government is spending ~$800 per server for Win2k, ~$400 per person on Office without even considering the alternatives.

      Example, at my agency someone wanted to spend ~$3000 for FTP Server Software and clients. They were going to do it too, until myself and some others mentioned that free software would be perfect in that role. (Hell, I think W2K comes with an ftp server).

      This is not just the government though, businesses do it too - PHBs assume that expensive software is better, and the more money they spend, the better "product" the will get.

      It's up to us (OSS advocates), to educate our bosses and the people that make decisions that OSS makes sense in alot of places. And don't just say it, PROVE IT, deploy it, and document the performance/costs benefits. At the same time, integrate their existing software that they've already paid for instead of trying to convert everything all at once.

    • by oGMo ( 379 ) on Tuesday June 04, 2002 @02:01PM (#3639416)
      so, in a nutshell, Nader is saying that the government should make an effort to influence the marketplace in a certain direction, rather than letting natural market forces dictate what heppens

      Uh, the government is already influencing the marketplace in a major influence at that. Nader appears to be asking for the government to influencing it less or at least differently, as to not support a convicted criminal.

      • Nader *does not* say that he wants the government to not support convicted criminals.

        What he says is, government should tie purchasing to corporate behavior modification, and place limits on software purchases unless certain behaviors are achieved. Basically, use government purchasing as an informal extension of the justice system, with no question of evidence, appeals, etc.

        Like I said, I look forward to the day when open source finally takes over. However, I think this is a terrible precedent to set, and the simple fact that it's aimed at Microsoft is not enough to make me support what is ultimately a really bad idea. If this is successful, every company with a government contract will lobby to introduce legislation making it more difficult for government to buy from their competitors. Ultimately, this would be bad for everyone, even if it achieved its goals in this one case.

        Let the courts do their job, or reform the courts. Mixing up our justice and procurement systems is about as bad as an idea can get.

        Cheers
        -b

    • >I don't want the government using my tax dollars to achieve that (except in antitrust and other legal manners)

      So hold on. You'd rather your taxmoney go (far more inefficiently) to laywers than to investigations as to whether an alternative is better than the current system, in addition to whether that alternative helps break the dependancy on that sole supplier (with the bonus by virtue of your purchasing power potentially helping your economy by stimulating more competition and thus making you weathier down the line?)

      > Governments in general, and the US government in particular, can just *barely* do their job as is.

      Speak for yourself. My governments website is often easier to navigate and data-mine than msdn.microsoft.com, who, according to the "wealthier equals better" formula so popular these days should have the best site.

      I understand the need for a relateivly free market, but to me this is a clear case of two birds with one stone, for half the cost of getting only the first bird through your original methods. The costs might be initially steep, but in the long run, you can only be better off for having more competition and reducing MS's market leverage.
    • But I don't want the government using my tax dollars to achieve that (except in antitrust and other legal manners).

      And you do want the government spending billions on Microsoft software?

      I think the idea of having the government maintain its own source on an office suite, or use/contribute to an existing open source initiative, is a brilliant idea. Especially now that we're back to deficit spending.
    • ...so, in a nutshell, Nader is saying that the government should make an effort to influence the marketplace in a certain direction, rather than letting natural market forces dictate what heppens (questionable/illegal business practices being part of the market).

      The is an utterly moot point, as a market dominated by a monopoly is not, I repeat, not a free market! All of the assumptions any of us make about the effectiveness of the free market cease to be relevant when one entity, in this case, Microsoft, enjoys monopolistic power over that market. In which case the only alternative to a non-free, monopolistic or oligarchical marketplace in which no competition can possibly occur is government intervention, either in the form of enforced regulation to prevent monopolies from forming in the first place (the ideal solution from a free market perspective, ie. keep the market free at all times), enforced anti-trust legislation for when monopolies do form and abuse their position (less ideal, in that monopolies can form and then tread close to that line without crossing it, resulting in markets that are not free and thus inherently dysfunctional, but still better than nothing as it does, presumably, prevent and punish the worst excesses of a monopolist like Microsoft), or use of its purchasing might to encourage, even coerce, desired behavior from a recalcitrant and unrepentent monopolist such as Microsoft.

      Notice the keyword enforced, which with the current sellout of the DOJ is missing from this situation entirely. Nader makes an excellent point here ... if another department of government abdicates its resposibility to the people and society, the purchasing power of other portions of government can, if used correctly, go a long way toward correcting that problem. It would be better to root out the corruption at the heart of the Dept. of Justice, but if that isn't doable something along these lines is certainly better than nothing.

      I'd love to see the rise of Open Source, the fall of Microsoft, etc, as much as the next guy. But I don't want the government using my tax dollars to achieve that (except in antitrust and other legal manners).

      And what do you do when the DOJ snatches defeat from the jaws of victory, as it is doing with the current Microsoft case, because of backroom political sweetheart deals and campaign contributions stuffing the pockets of our elected(?) officials? If the government refuses to step up to its responsibilities to bust monopolies who are abusing its power (indeed, if we are truly interested in free markets then IMHO the law should be changed to disallow monopolies, period, but that is a debate for another day), then Microsoft (and entities like them, e.g. Monsanto) become unassailable in their respective markets and the entire notion of a free market becomes little more than an idealized theory that no longer has any relevance to the real world.

      In which case, to the have-nots, revolution starts to look like a damn good alternative (and thank the fates I'm not one of the have-nots, at least not yet).
  • because the data is only accessible by the $4 billion IRS system, which was DOA. Check back later when the system is back up.

  • People, and societies, are slow to defend themselves from abusiveness. Now it finally looks like there will be some effective defense.

    I'm very happy with the letter to the OMB. It seems that it will help everyone begin thinking reasonably.

    People are saying good things about Open Office [openoffice.org]. Version 1.0 was just released. Remember that the history of the source code is that it has already been through 4 or 5 major releases.

    The lack of a good Office Suite has been a barrier to moving away from Micro$oft Turd ^H^H^H^H^H^H Word.

    Governments have a duty not to use proprietary file formats. Governments have a duty not to allow themselves to be locked into an abusive company's money-making schemes.
  • ... a software "monoculture" makes the federal government more vulnerable ...

    ... it should place a cap of the market share for any one vendor of PC client software ...



    We're going to save money buy reducing (even purposely limiting) standardization and making the systems more complicated?

    The basic idea of the Federal Gov't wringing tax dollar saving behavior out of proprietary software vendors is good. Free, open source software seems like a great solution for gov't. But these particular changes would only dramatically increase costs; you've got to standardize on something, whether it's Linux, Windows or whatever.
  • Slashdot is at its best as an interactive forum, not a PR platform for politicians.

    Perhaps if Mr. Love and Mr. Nader posted their ideas on Slashdot *before* they wrote to OMB, they and we would have benefitted from the discussion. Now it looks like fishing for compliments, or more likely, a good old fashioned Press Release (well targeted).
  • by ortholattice ( 175065 ) on Tuesday June 04, 2002 @02:04PM (#3639439)
    All governments purchases are normally supposed to be open for competitive bidding. The bid will list a set of features required for an item being purchased, and the low bidder providing a product with those features wins the bid.

    A feature is an objective attribute such as "provides variable-sized fonts". It is not something like "must be identical to MS Office". Just as a bid for cars will specify horsepower, gas mileage, etc. and cannot say "must be identical to a Ford."

    Something like StarOffice or even OpenOffice would satisfy the needs 99% of all government workers. We're talking about basic office documents and memos, nothing exotic.

    Surely there must be actual RFPs somewhere, if only as a formality to satisfy the law, that end up being won by MS. Who bids on these, and why does MS always win? Even if you sold them OpenOffice for $1 a copy, perhaps enhancing it (under GPL) to add some arcane feature or two that currently only MS has in order to satisfy the RFP, you could become quite wealthy. If it meets the requirements of the RFP and has a lower price, the government must accept the bid, in order to minimize the cost to the taxpayers.

    • Despite what slashdotters think about Microsoft, whatever they charge for Office, they're giving you a support contract. If I offered OpenOffice to the government for 1$ a pop with no support contract they would pretty quickly choose Microsoft's 100$ bid over mine. Most organizations will do this, you COULD download Linux freely and install it on a bunch of systems. Companies buy it from RedHat for a pretty penny specifically because that 70$ or whatever gets them some real support other than pointing out some newsgroups or IRC channels.
    • A feature is an objective attribute such as "provides variable-sized fonts". It is not something like "must be identical to MS Office".

      What planet do you live on? Back when we were bidding one of the x86 PCs to the army, we had to provide a word processor. The laundry list of specs for the word processor was for WP5.1. (This was back in the late 80's early 90s).

      For example, we had wanted to bid using Word 5.0 (for DOS) as the word processor. But the laundry list had "Must have a 'Show Codes'" mode. Unfortunately, Word didn't have such an item.

      So, no the specs don't say "must be identical to MS Office", they just give specs that read off the laundry list of MS Office features, and if you don't have it, tough. It essentially says, must be identical without explicity stating that.
    • I recently participated as a bidder on one of these. I lost. It was my first time, and I learned a few things that may be of interest.

      Python is an obscure language that no one has ever heard about, especially in regards to web applications. If you use Python, you may be locked into something that won't be around tomorrow. Visual Basic is much better.

      In order to get the most bang for the buck, it is important that government standardize on Microsoft's .Net strategy immediately. Even though .Net just came out a few months ago, it has already proven itself to be a more standard and portable interface than CORBA.

      I bet you didn't know these things. (Who, me? Bitter? ;-)

  • by crovira ( 10242 ) on Tuesday June 04, 2002 @02:12PM (#3639511) Homepage
    Governements departments and large businesses BUY software and own the source code, except for PC OSs.

    They should be forced by law to BUY and not lease all the software they run on their machines. Stop all acquisitions of any licences. They can only renew licences on software that's already installed.

    I've written a lot of code for large businesses and for municipal, state/provincial and federal govermnents in two countries. The only time they DON'T get the source code is on code from Microsoft or on some packaged code running on Windows.

    All mainframe, mini/departmental, proprietary code has to be compiled onto the target host as part of the migration process from purchasing/development, testing, integration and production/deployment.

    If you're a purchaser shelling out a couple of million for a custom software package, you damn well better get the source or you'd better not have a board or an electorate to answer to.

    Requiring the purchase of the code, not just licences, will cause a major change in the way Microsoft works but not in the way the rest of the world works.
  • by pb ( 1020 )
    Exactly when did the gov't switch to Word; I thought they used Wordperfect for everything...
  • It is not all obvious to me that forcing the US Government to buy from multiple software vendors in order to "level" the economy in any way is a "good use" of its purchasing power. The (bad) premise in the headline is that a communist/egalitarian society/economic system is better than the current mixed-bag of capitalism and socialism.
  • I once ran across some slightly inebriated normal citizens who had gotten hold of a computer magazine.

    They were doing "dramatic readings of this alphabet soup", as they explained it to me, accompanied by gales of laughter. Listening to them, I had to admit it was funny, but I don't think we were enjoying the same joke.

    OMB probably thinks linux is an excel macro.

C for yourself.

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