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8 May 2012

Microsoft - pay now, pay later

By Andrew Clifford

Why do organisations consider that Microsoft is a safe choice?

My company provides tools for businesses to assess their IT systems. As part of the assessment process we work with clients to check that they have answered questions properly, and also for us to check that our materials are well worded.

One of our questions is consistently misunderstood. The question asks whether a system is based on standard technology that can be swapped with technology from a different supplier, or whether the system is based on proprietary technology. Clients consistently declare that they are using a Microsoft technology stack and that this is non-proprietary.

Some of this misunderstanding is because the question is not well worded. But I think there is a deeper issue. Many organisations have adopted proprietary Microsoft technology as a standard but are hardly aware that they have done so.

This did not use to be the case. Years ago typical organisations had a mix of technologies, such as mainframes and midrange systems based on Unix, AS/400s and VMS. But now, particularly in the UK public sector, I come across organisations with wall-to-wall Microsoft.

I am not criticising Microsoft. They provide some very good technology. What worries me is that many organisations do not understand the implications of their choice.

This matters for two reasons.

The first reason is that Microsoft costs money. But one way or another, everything costs money. Some organisations could save money by adopting free software, but this is not the major issue.

The second reason is more important. Adopting proprietary technology as a standard, however good that technology, means that you have to follow the lead of the vendor. You have to accept the need to upgrade, you have to accept version incompatibilities, and you have to accept upgrade costs.

Many organisations choose Microsoft because it is familiar, and because alternatives would require them to acquire different skills. Open source such as Linux would make them feel vulnerable because they would not have a vendor to take responsibility.

In the short term this is rational. But these are the same organisations that I see reluctantly upgrading to new versions of SQL Server, or Office, or Internet Explorer, or Windows. In the long run, the "safe choice" of standardising on proprietary technology means that you have to follow the vendor wherever they want to take you.

Many organisations seem to accept difficult upgrades as inevitable, but they are not. In my experience, other vendors, particularly IBM, are much better at preserving backward compatibility. Working to standards used by multiple vendors gives you many more options. And with free and open source software there is no vendor to force you to upgrade, you are free to use old versions, and there is no commercial pressure for the products to move to incompatible new versions.

I am not against using Microsoft technology, but if you are going to use it you have to accept all that it involves. You have to accept that you will need to upgrade to Microsoft's timetable, which is driven by their commercial needs rather than your needs. Microsoft can be a good choice, but in the long run it is not a safe choice.

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