Licensing: Desert microsoft? It can be done.

Users face an uphill struggle if they want to replace Microsoft software in protest at licensing changes – but an increasing number say it can be done. The strength of feeling against the decision to scrap the cheapest upgrade deal is growing. The question has been whether customers could really afford to turn angry talk into action. Yet Microsoft is even now negotiating to hold on to the biggest deal in its history.

It is engaged in a high-stakes game of Call My Bluff with the UK government, which says it is seriously looking at alternative vendors. The collapse of a deal on that scale would raise questions with Redmond’s super-users.

On a smaller scale the decisions are more difficult. For many businesses and organisations replacing Microsoft would require wholesale restructuring.

It can be done, however. Insurer Hill House Hammond, for example, last year switched to Linux and is generally happy with the move.

IT director Gareth Lloyd says the open-source software is easier to manage and cost-effective but admits the change was not easy.

“Migration is not really the issue, it depends on your applications. It’s not more difficult to go from Microsoft to Linux than from Unix, it is purely down to application support. Some application providers write for Microsoft, which makes migration less practical,” says Lloyd.

Penwith District Council has started the first phase of a £3m project to replace 260 computers with Sun Ray thin-client terminals running bespoke applications and StarOffice. The south-west Cornwall authority says it saved £120,000 by choosing StarOffice over Microsoft’s Office product suite, and suggests other councils consider alternatives. “Most users don’t need Microsoft software and it’s more cost effective not to have it,” Andy Mann, the council’s head of IT said. Pharmaceutical giant GlaxoSmithKline’s vice president of communications Phillip Connolly says users are not forced to stay with Microsoft.

“We recently moved from Exchange to Notes and while this was not a reaction to Microsoft’s licensing changes it does show that there are real alternatives to its technology,” he said. But the investment and planning needed to switch software makes it extremely painful. Robin Carsberg, president of local government user group Socitm said: “Many authorities have made huge investments in Microsoft products and have a great deal of experience and we would need a good reason to move away from them. But Microsoft is looking as if it is trying to give us a good reason.”

David Roberts, chief executive of blue-chip user group The Infrastructure Forum, says members believe it will take four years to move from the software, and even then it would result in many platforms being used.

“There’s still a huge question about whether the functionality is available with anything else,” he said.

Dan Kusnetzky, vice president at analyst IDC, says leaving Microsoft depends on the applications being used. If they have been written using predominantly Microsoft tools, this leaves little option but to run them in a Microsoft environment. And he says Microsoft is aware of the lack of alternatives. “Microsoft can get by with a certain level of disregard before people walk away in disgust. As long as it stays within that range people are generally pleased. It’s too costly just to rip things out and replace them. And the same applies if there’s even the slightest fear of incompatibility in case one organisation can’t communicate with another.

“Microsoft generally focuses on good enough not excellence, as excellent is expensive. So it leaves that to others,” he said.

Some users have no intention of changing their Microsoft environments and are happy to adopt the new licensing. The Royal Bank of Scotland, the NHS and Ministry of Defence negotiated special deals to soften the blow of increased costs. The organiser of the Commonwealth Games, Manchester 2002, is building its entire infrastructure on Windows, saying it can cut costs.

“You could toy with the idea of doing it on end to end Linux, but what level of support or specialisation could we expect? The beauty of Windows is it allows us to do everything from the enterprise servers right through to the desktop. Which takes out a lot of cost,” said Gerry Pennell, technology director, Manchester 2002.

  • The government has now struck a deal with Microsoft which it claims will save it £100m on software over three years. The Office of Government Commerce (OGC) has also struck deals with IBM and Sun for desktop software. Microsoft said the deal will allow the public sector to “rationalise its Microsoft software licence procurement costs and processes, offering cost savings on licence expenditure and reducing distributed administration and support overheads”.

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