The European Commission has been accused of favoritism in handing out its IT contracts as it looks set to move internal IT systems to Microsoft Windows 7 without holding a public tender.
At a secret meeting last December, Commission civil servants agreed in principle to upgrade more than 36,000 desktop computers in European institutions to Windows 7 without holding a public tender. The proposed move could tie the Commission to Microsoft for the next four to five years, flying in the face of the Commission's own advice to avoid public procurement lock-in.
Jan Wildeboer of Linux distributor Red Hat said on Wednesday that he was very disappointed in the decision. "The Commission's supposed deal with Microsoft is not really strengthening its own message of avoiding lock-in. We are hopeful that the Commission will practice what it preaches. In the interests of a fair and free market we must have vendor-neutral tendering," he said at an event organized by open source advocates in Brussels. Commission representatives attending the event were visibly uncomfortable, but did not comment.
However, even within the Commission task force at the Dec. 15 meeting, there were differing views on the upgrade, with representatives from the budget department (DG BUDG) asking why it was not being put out to tender. The Directorate General for Informatics (DIGIT) sets the Commission's IT strategy, and wants to make the upgrades using a "negotiated procedure," a process that allows the Commission to acquire software made by a single vendor. DG BUDG said that although this was technically allowed under the Commission rules, a more competitive procedure should be followed next time.
DIGIT argued that the current license agreements for Windows XP and Windows 2000 are due to expire in May, and therefore an upgrade now is essential. According to the minutes of the meeting, members of the task force approved the request "given the contractual time constraints." The Commission's legal and budget departments have yet to report on the legality of the deal, but given the time pressure it seems almost certain to go ahead.
However, no final decision has yet been made, said Antony Gravili, Commission spokesman for Inter-Institutional Administration, on Wednesday.
The proposed deal will have a huge knock-on effect, potentially worth millions of euros to Microsoft, as other bodies and organizations seek to keep pace with the Commission's technology practices. European governments represent 19 percent of all software purchases in the European Union, according to IDC.
But the Commission's plan to stick with Windows appears to be at odds with its own European Interoperability Framework, a set of guidelines for governments installing IT systems, which broadly supports the use of open specifications and warns of the danger of being locked in to one software vendor. The chair of the task force, Catherine Day, said that it was important that "decisions taken now do not lock the Commission into any technology providers for more than a few years."
DIGIT was also told that it should "inform the group of other mainstream IT supplier negotiated procedures where contracts are approaching their end date," said the minutes.
Many supporters of open standards, have been outraged by the Commission's action.
"Europe is in danger of rapidly becoming a laggard in this march towards open and fully interoperable computer systems. While some national and regional governments from around Europe have made impressive moves in the right direction, the European Commission remains wedded to a single, closed operating system and shows no signs of even considering an open alternative," said Paul Meller, spokesman for Open Forum Europe.
In what appears to be an effort to avoid such situations arising in the future, the Commission's Directorate General for the Information Society (DG INFSO) earlier this month put out a call for tenders to draw up a report on IT procurement. The report will provide the groundwork for a formal Commission communication due out by the end of the year. It will "provide guidance on how to use ICT standards in public procurement in order to help public authorities to make better use of standards to promote efficiency and reduce lock-in."
The minutes of the meeting indicate that members of the task force do not want to be faced with having to make a snap decision in the future and that it should be possible to plan ahead, well before licenses run out.