The other IT from another Europe

Also on Consortium News and Huffington Post

Over the last 10-15 years public IT in Europe has not developed in line with public interests, nor does it guarantee the fundamental rights of citizens such as privacy and freedom of expression. Tremendous opportunities in the field of economic development and employment have also been missed. Europe effectively outsources much of its information processing (software & services) to foreign parties at the direct cost of hundreds of billions of Euros (typically around 1% of GNP). The opportunity-cost to local economic growth and employment opportunities are much greater than that. Even more costly than either of these is the de-facto handing over of control of data of governments, businesses and individual citizens to foreign spies who use it for political manipulation, repression of citizens' freedoms and industrial espionage. Although the warnings about the negative consequences of current policies date back at least 15 years, these aspects have been documented in irrefutable detail over the last year by the revelations of Edward Snowden. 12 months later there has not even been the beginning of a policy response.

It could all have been so different ...

In the first 21 months of the 21st century, the dot-com bubble burst and then three skyscrapers in New York collapsed. Between these two events a largely forgotten report to the European Parliament appeared in the summer of 2001. This report described the scale and impact of electronic espionage in Europe by the U.S. and its 'Echelon' partners (Canada, UK, Australia and New Zealand). Besides a detailed problem analysis, the report also gave concrete examples of IT policies that governments could take to significantly limit foreign intelligence spying on Europe.

In the same period was U.S. government won one of the largest anti-trust cases its history, against Microsoft, and the EU followed this victory by launching a similar case that would also be won leading to the highest fine to a company for economic crimes in the history of the EU.

It was against this background that thinking about strategic versus operational aspects of IT in the public sector changed. The report on Echelon made it clear that reducing IT into a merely operational exercise had disastrous consequences on the sovereignty of European states with respect to, in particular, the United States (and perhaps in the near future, China, other technically capable countries or non-state organizations). The economic consequences of industrial espionage against many high-tech and R&D-intensive companies became a major concern for the government.

Windows 8 does not have to be a disaster

<originally a Webwereld column - in Dutch - also on HuffPo UK>

Klik voor grotere afbeelding

Gartner, IT-journalists and even former employees of Microsoft agree: Windows 8 will be a disaster. The Metro interface designed for tablets (a market that virtually does not exist in relation to MS-Windows) is unworkable on a desktop with a vertical non-touch screen, keyboard and mouse. Most office spaces still have this and most run legacy applications with interfaces that rely on a Windows PC using a keyboard and mouse. It is precisely the ongoing purchase of desktop PCs with the combination of MS-Windows and MS Office that has kept Microsoft financially afloat over the last 15 years

The combination of legacy applications (mostly proprietary) and familiarity with MS Office, led many IT organisations to automatically buy the new Windows platform, despite the high cost of licences and support. The inevitable result is a world of pain, with new interfaces, a lack of compatibility and the sudden cessation of support for critical components. IT policy is organised around coping with these problems instead of focusing on sustainable alternative solutions. And solving or mitigating these problems requires so much time and money that there is often little left over to plan further ahead. Thus, in many organisations the perfect vicious circle has existed for so long that many IT people can not even see it.

Doublethink and Zen

<originally a Dutch Webwereld column>

Doublethink is a concept that was introduced by George Orwell in his famous novel '1984 '. It is a mental mechanism that allows people to believe sincerely and simultaneously two completely opposing ideas without a problem.

In the ten years that I have been involved with open source and open standards in the Dutch public sector, I have encountered many double thinkers. So for years I have endured “experts” and insiders patiently explaining that the migration to open source desktops within that community would be impossible, because civil servants could not work with other platforms. Asking non-techies to use anything but the Windows + Office desktop they were taught at Dutch schools would lead to disaster. It Just Could Not Happen.

The certainty with which this (to this day) is  mouthed as an aphorism everywhere has always amazed me. Previously, the Netherlands had migrated from WP5.2 in DOS to Windows Word 6, yet the Earth kept turning, children went to school and there was water from the tap.

Multiple migrations, mostly outside the Netherlands, have also demonstrated that ordinary users can do their work well with alternative platforms, provided they are given some training and support (something, indeed, that is perfectly normal when migrating to new releases of the usual proprietary systems).

The same people who for years have claimed with great certainty that "It Just Could Not Happen” have been busily rolling out iPads to the many managers and directors, who for many and varied reasons discover they need one. Apparently the adoption of an entirely different platform with a totally different interface is not as problematic as was asserted for all those years. Huh?

It's a trap!

<originally a Dutch column for Webwereld>

What is a document? It started as a flat piece of beaten clay, onto which characters were scratched with a stick. 8000 years later it was found and after years of study, archaeologists concluded that it said: 'You owe me three goats”. 

Through papyrus and parchment scrolls we arrived at mass production of paper and book printing in Europe in the 15th century. Our sense of the nature of a document is still derived from this previous revolution in information capture and distribution. When computers became commonplace as a tool to create documents, there was therefore a strong focus on applications to produce paper document as quickly and nicely as possible. The creation had become digital, but the final result was not fundamentally different from the first printed book in 1452.

Most word processors in use today cling to this concept. There are hundreds of functions for page numbering, footnotes and layout to achieve a legible final result - on paper. Many IT tools around the management and access of documents are directed to the concept of a digital document as a stack of paper. Ready to print for 'real' use. The modern ways of working together for various reasons no longer apply to a paper-oriented way of recording and distribution. Paper is static, local, and now much slower and more expensive to transport than bits. It is this combination of restrictions has led to new ways of creating documents where both the creative process and the end result is digital. A famous example is Wikipedia, the world's largest encyclopaedia with millions of participants continually writing and rewriting about the latest insights in technology, science, history, culture or even the biography of Dutch folk singer Andre Hazes.

Autoimmune disease in the pig pen

<webwereld column - in Dutch>

Computer viruses and palliatives against them are a growing threat to high-tech care. There is a classic solution for the old problem of a vulnerable mono-culture: diversity.

Last Monday alarm bells went off in many IT departments. A viral infection on Windows XP computers was initially caused by an anti-virus update from McAfee. The update made part of the system appear to be a threat and system file protection software made the system unusable, a type of auto-immune disease.