TradeMark of the Beast


What did you think when you read that? If it was unprintable, you may have already heard that the city of Austin is currently negotiating with the Beast from Redmond for an MS Enterprise Agreement -- the software giant's most exhaustive and expensive flavor of site license, allowing the city to run many, many copies of most every product Microsoft makes for one flat annual fee. And the anti-Microsoft revolutionaries are crying foul.

The story -- largely driven by Austin freelance writer and open-source (that is, free operating software like Linux) advocate Joe Barr -- has bounced from user group to listserv and back again, crossing our desks over and over again in the process. According to Barr's published account in the LinuxWorld e-zine in August, Microsoft announced its belief that the city had more copies of MS applications than it did proofs of purchase of same and has presented Austin with two options -- execute an Enterprise Agreement or suffer weighty legal harm.

Barr -- whose e-mail sig quote is an extract from Judge Thomas Penfield Jackson's ruling against Microsoft -- submitted open records requests to the city that would help confirm, deny, or clarify Microsoft's claims, got what he says are insufficient answers at best, and now makes mention of a cover-up at City Hall. Obviously, this opinion is not shared by City Hall. "I can't think of any reason why the city wouldn't want people to know about the agreement," says city Chief Information Officer Brownlee Bowmer.

Why would the city want to obfuscate the details of a presumably normal business arrangement with Microsoft, one that will have to be approved by the City Council anyway? An Enterprise Agreement can render the enterprise in question an all-Microsoft shop, and that fate-worse-than-death fires up the techies. "Gone will be the Novell Netware servers, which are not only more reliable but more cost effective," says Barr. "Gone will be whatever Lotus Notes servers still exist. Gone will be the small but significant amount of work being done on Linux or other free operating systems." Bowmer says this is "absolutely not true" of any agreement being forged between Austin and Microsoft. "It's specific to a certain number of seats (i.e., installations on particular computers) of a particular software product. You can still use anything you want to."

Even among shops firmly within the Microsoft orbit, there is controversy over the Enterprise Agreement, and Barr is not the first person to suggest that Big Bill and Company make ethically questionable impositions on corporate users -- like, say, charging them upgrade fees for customizing their in-house Windows desktops, even though they haven't really changed the software -- and then hold up the Enterprise Agreement as the magic solution. And then, for an impact even non-technical people can understand, the Enterprise Agreement is expensive, though the city doesn't yet want to release dollar amounts for annual payments on the proposed three-year deal. (The city of Topeka, Kansas, clearly a smaller organization than the city of Austin, is spending more than $300,000 a year on its agreement, and Bowmer notes that "Microsoft isn't going to be making different deals with different cities.") We'll know how much the price tag will be when the agreement goes to the City Council in 30-60 days.

Barr's point is that the current state of affairs within the city, which may indeed be legal despite the Microsoft saber-rattling, costs us nothing, and while Bowmer says the funding for a new Enterprise Agreement is included within the FY 2001-02 budget, there's nothing within the Information Systems Department's spending plan that reflects an outlay of that anticipated magnitude over and above current costs. However, with Microsoft getting ready to roll out its new version of Windows, the question of what the city currently owns, and how much it costs, may soon be moot -- that is, unless the city decides to become an all-Linux shop, which some (much smaller) governments have done. "It will be less expensive for the city of Austin to go through the various migrations we'll be doing anyway if we weren't under a permanent agreement," says Bowmer. "From my position as CIO, I think it's just something the city needs to do."

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