EU Commission Enters Talks With Microsoft for New Licenses

The European Commission has confirmed that it has entered into talks with Microsoft with the aim of keeping its licensing agreement for Windows.

The current deal with Microsoft is set to expire on May 31 and the Commission decided to enter into negotiated procedures with the software giant rather than hold a public tender. This decision has sparked much controversy among supporters of open standards. Those talks started on March 24.

However, the negotiated procedure measure is allowed by European Union rules under certain conditions and allows the Commission to acquire software made by a single vendor. But the length of such contracts may not exceed three years.

Everything the Commission has done is above board, said Antony Gravili, Commission spokesman for Inter-Institutional Administration, on Friday. "The Commission is committed to getting value for money and negotiates on behalf of all the E.U. institutions, agencies and other bodies -- 42 in all. Representing such a large number allows us to drive costs down and we will drive a hard bargain."

The Commission assesses products and must make a business case in terms of feasibility and total cost of ownership. At a task force meeting in December, when the decision was made to take the negotiated procedure route, representatives from the budget department (DG BUDG) asked why it was not being put out to tender. But the Directorate General for Informatics (DIGIT), which sets the Commission's IT strategy, said that Microsoft met all the requirements.

Under the current license agreement, the Commission already has the right to upgrade to Windows 7. "This is standard for big corporate contracts with Microsoft, and is highly unlikely to change under a new contract," said Gravili.

Any 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 E.U. according to IDC, with more than 36,000 desktop computers in European institutions.

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 into one software vendor. The chair of the task force deciding on the current Windows licenses 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."

Jan Wildeboer, the EMEA evangelist at Red Hat, said that "comparing [Digital Agenda Commissioner] Neelie Kroes' statement at the OFE conference on unintentional lock-in being a waste of public money with the Commission negotiating a deal with Microsoft on cementing exactly the lock-in that Neelie Kroes warned of leaves me wondering about practicing what one preaches. We, the open standards and open source implementers, are ready to compete -- if proper tendering is done."

"Is Europe's administration really so locked in by proprietary software that the Commission cannot follow its own rules and recommendations? Such a decision by the Commission would make us wonder if the Digital Agenda and the European Interoperability Framework are worth the paper they're printed on. Such a move would also be hard to square with European procurement rules, let alone best practices. The Commission may or may not be able to get away with this. But it would be setting a terrible example for Europe's public sector, and would wilfully squander a lot of hard-won reputational capital," said Karsten Gerloff, president of the Free Software Foundation Europe, via e-mail.

"Although we haven't seen an official statement from the Commission about this yet it does look as though they are pushing ahead with a migration of staff to the Windows 7 platform without holding a public tender for the contract, and without considering alternative solutions. As we have already pointed out, this decision would appear to contradict the IT policy goals laid down in the Commission's Digital Agenda and it also would appear to run counter to the Commission's efforts to make procurement processes in Europe more transparent and fairer," said Graham Taylor, chief executive of Openforum Europe, via e-mail.

"In tandem with negotiations on the licenses, the Commission will also seek to renew its services contracts," explained Gravili. "The current agreement includes a baseline service agreement for all the institutions, but larger institutions such as the Parliament and the Commission have a services contract to help manage any issues that require a deep knowledge of the software at code level. As recently as last week when we came under cyberattack, we made use of Microsoft experts, who worked alongside our own," he added.

Follow Jennifer on Twitter at @BrusselsGeek or email tips and comments to jennifer_baker@idg.com.

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