October 29, 2001

Why government can no longer justify Windows

Author: JT Smith

- By Robin "Roblimo" Miller -
Windows XP is a very nice operating system, far superior to previous Windows versions. It is nearly as stable and crash-resistant as Linux, and for the first time offers multiple user logins on desktop PCs, which is an important feature for computers that may be used by more than one person. The new Windows also has much-improved media handling capabilities. It is great for editing music and listening to it, and pretty darn good for watching DVD movies or exchanging family photos via email, and it is excellent for gamers.

Excuse me? Listening to music? Watching movies? Exchanging family photos? Playing games? I don't know about you, but I do not want my civil servants to be doing any of this on my time, using computers bought with my tax dollars. I want them to be doing their jobs, performing the tasks I am paying them to perform, using the most efficient and lowest cost hardware and software available.

Go hang around the public area of a government office one day. Watch the computer-using workers. What you will see on their screens, more than anything else, is special-purpose programs that use desktops as little more than dumb terminals that access mainframes running various operating systems, many of them obsolete in the commercial world. In some offices, you may see workers typing letters or reading and responding to email. In others, you will see spreadsheets getting a workout. If you are a Linux user, you will say, "Everything in this office could easily be done using Linux without any problem, and with little or no worker retraining."

My wife used to work for the IRS. In one assignment she used Windows and Microsoft Office, as did other secretaries and clerical workers -- to type up simple memos and letters. She had a separate terminal she used to access the IRS's nine different, incompatible mainframe-stored databases, one at a time, with a separate login for each one. She could have done all of her work on a single Linux desktop, using multiple terminal windows to log into more than one database at a time, and StarOffice to type and print letters and memos. Compatibility with MS Office's "advanced" features would not have mattered; no one in that office or, apparently, elsewhere in the IRS, used any of them anyway.

A responsible government administrator, purchasing agent or elected officeholder would look at what computers in offices under their authority are used for day in and day out, and would pick the lowest-cost, most reliable hardware and software combination needed to perform those functions. I doubt that Windows would win out over Linux in such a comparison any more than a Cadillac would win a police patrol car cost/benefit comparison with a Ford Crown Victoria, the sturdy, easily-maintained vehicle preferred by most U.S. police departments and federal law enforcement agencies.

Licensing fees for Windows and other Microsoft products are going up, not just a little but a lot, especially for government agencies and businesses that use large numbers of desktop computers. Not only that, Microsoft now requires a strict paper trail to prove that each single copy of each Microsoft program in use was acquired legitimately, an added administrative load compared to Linux that is never mentioned in Microsoft's endless "total cost of ownership" (TCO) comparisons that purportedly show how their expensive products are really less expensive than free alternatives.

Come to think of it, recovery from cracker-induced system failures and viruses (almost all of which infect only Windows) are never included in Microsoft's TCO figures, either, even though their cost may suck up close to 6 percent of some businesses' total revenue.

Let's assume that the "6 percent" figure is nothing but alarmism; that the true cost is only 3 percent. Note that we're discussing percentage of total revenue here, not just of an IT budget, and chances are that the figures for business apply to government as well. When I read about teachers being laid off in government austerity moves, it makes no sense to me to see 3 percent or 6 percent (or even one half of 1 percent) of my taxes paying for virus and cracking recovery when a shift from Windows to Linux would nearly eliminate this expense.

And then there are those pesky license fees. How many teachers' jobs could be preserved by switching to Linux, StarOffice, and other free software instead of constantly upgrading licenses for Windows and other proprietary software products for which free or low-cost Linux-based alternatives are available? At the local government level, we need to start asking our elected representatives, "Why are you short-changing our children so you can send money to Redmond?" We can also ask, "Why are you wasting money on Windows and Windows software instead of hiring more police?"

There are a few -- very few -- places in a typical government office where Windows might be needed because there are still a few useful proprietary programs for which no Open Source alternatives exist. Fine. Maintain those few Windows desktops, but switch all the servers and single purpose or task-oriented PCs to Linux.

As for government employees who complain about Linux being "too hard to use," they need to be told that disadvantaged, barely literate children and teenagers in some of Baltimore's most drug-ridden neighborhoods have learned to use free Linux point-and-click desktop GUIs and productivity software in an hour or two, and that if those government employees don't want their jobs, there are plenty of people looking for work -- including the unemployed parents of some of those Baltimore children -- who would be happy to put out a little effort to accustom themselves to a monitor that has a little gear or foot, instead of a "Start" button, in its lower left hand corner, and to learn to use drag-and-drop Konqueror instead of drag-and-drop Windows Explorer as their file manager.

Perhaps government officials can justify buying fleets of Cadillacs for the police department and continuing to use Windows in the offices they oversee when tax money is flowing in so fast that they have trouble spending it all. But last I looked, tax revenues in almost every U.S. jurisdiction are going down, not up, even as Microsoft is raising prices, toughening its licensing policies and getting tougher on license enforcement.

If a private business wants to supply Windows XP for its employees so they can more easily listen to music, watch movies, exchange pictures of their children, and play games on company time, it is not my problem. But when I see my tax money money being wasted this way, it makes me angry.

And it should make you angry, too.

Please feel free to reprint or redistribute this article in any form, in any medium, as long as you do not alter its content, and you mention that it was first published at www.newsforge.com.

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