July 10, 2002

Maricopa County to local LUG: We're happy with Microsoft

-By Grant Gross -
Members of the Phoenix Linux Users Group have come away from a meeting with the Maricopa County CIO with mixed feelings, saying the county is "deeply entrenched" in Microsoft products even though it has a clause in its procurement procedures for barring contractors who've been busted for illegal business practices.
As we all know, Microsoft has been convicted of antitrust violations in a U.S. court. PLUG members used that hook to set up a meeting with Lin Thatcher, the county's CIO, and other county officials. Twenty-three PLUG members showed up, outnumbering the county employees there by nearly a four-to-one margin, but members say it'll take more than just the one meeting to change the county's mind.

"The meeting started out with them basically laying the background that they were
happy with Microsoft and they weren't interested in changing because Microsoft software simplifies their life," says PLUG member Matt Alexander. "There
were also comments about not wanting to introduce any new technologies because it's taken their tech people a long time to become pros with Microsoft software, and they don't want to disrupt that. I've worked in IT for two large companies, and I understand the benefits of standardizing systems, but I was still disappointed that they're not
exploring the use of Free Software more on the desktop to save costs and to use as leverage when negotiating contracts with Microsoft."

County officials, who run Windows on their 12,000 desktops and laptops but some Unix elsewhere, argued that only 5% of the county's IT budget goes to Microsoft, so a switch to Linux and other Open Source software wouldn't mean a large cost-savings. The county hangs on to most desktops for three years, and the standard office package in use is MS Office 97.

"Just because it's 'only 5%' doesn't mean that we should be spending the money if there are equivalent products available for free," Alexander says. "There are several reasons why this issue is important to us. We would like our government to use less expensive, but still fully capable, software alternatives to save tax dollars. We would like our government to use document formats that are not tied to a particular vendor's
proprietary product. We also prefer that our government no longer
financially support a convicted illegal monopolist."

PLUG member Robert Bushman says there was a little good news coming out of the meeting. The county is considering some trial Linux print and fax servers, and the county is targeting platform independence for its Web sites and documents, even though some of its sites now don't work without MS Internet Explorer. Bushman was also encouraged that the county officials said they were willing to talk again.

However, Bushman was mostly discouraged. "As we suspected, Maricopa has no legal obligation to debar Microsoft -- it's an option," he says. "Maricopa believes that if they did debar Microsoft, Microsoft would fight it. Maricopa perceives no significant pain in its relationship with Microsoft, and sees the price as reasonable.

"Maricopa has no serious intent to do anything to alter its dependent relationship with Microsoft, and is not interested in trialing Linux," he adds. "We are barking up the wrong tree."

The meeting with came about because of a PLUG letter-writing campaign to several government agencies including Maricopa County, which includes the city of Phoenix and has a larger population than 17 U.S. states. After member George
Toft found the procurement language, PLUG members brought up several concerns with the county officials, including encouraging open standards and the use of tax dollars for expensive software.

But the main point, says PLUG steering committee member Hans Kugler, was concerns over the county doing business with a company convicted of breaking the law. "For me personally, the issue is the support of an illegally maintained
monopoly," he says. "The government should attempt to distance itself from companies
found guilty of breaking the law. Making contracts guaranteeing exclusivity
of a certain market with a company is not a way to distance oneself from the
company. When that company also uses those activities to force everyone to
use their product (hence the term, "Microsoft tax"), then the government
has the added responsibility to act against that in order to help protect
the taxpayers."

Kugler does give county officials credit for being the only group to meet with the PLUG letter-writers, and he and Alexander are more positive about the meeting than Bushman is.

"We went in expecting them not to budge," Kugler says. "We would've been happily surprised if they'd changed their strategies, but we certainly didn't expect it.
We were under the impression that Maricopa County has banned all operating
systems other than those sold by Microsoft. We found out that they haven't
and that they employ three different brands of *NIX. We have questions about the
details, but it was a good start."

Kugler was also encouraged by the response of PLUG, with 23 members showing up to an 8:30 a.m. Monday meeting on six day's notice. "We have to admit that many in
our culture go to great extents to not need to be anywhere but asleep at
08:30 on a Monday morning," he says. "All in all, I think we had a good showing. We've also established that while we're serious and we can mobilize we are interested in working with the government rather than taking a confrontational stance," he says.

Kugler and Alexander say their campaign won't stop here. Kugler says the group needs to do more research on government procurements and refocus its letter-writing campaign. Alexander hopes PLUG members can establish deeper relationship with county IT workers and show them the benefits of Free Software while clearing up some misconceptions.

"Once the techies can demonstrate proficiency with Free Software, then it
will be much easier for upper management to give their stamp of approval," he says. "The county is deeply entrenched in Microsoft technologies for the sole
reason that Microsoft products work very well with other Microsoft
products. It's understandable that a large organization would try to
simplify its computing environment by standardizing on a particular vendor
or product line, but we have definite concerns about their long-term dependence
on Microsoft technologies and the repercussions on taxpayers and those of
us that choose to run non-Microsoft software.

"Maricopa County also perceives other cost-saving benefits to using Microsoft software, such as less training required to get a new employee to a productive state,
whether they're a desktop user or working in the IT department," he adds. "In
addition, the county equates a company's market share with long-term
stability, which is an additional challenge to Free Software gaining a
foothold within the county."

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