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.
Cybercrime and cyber-warfare are currently the trendy terms the government throws around to acquire additional laws and powers. If it can also link cybercrime to the distribution of images of child abuse (also known as child pornography), the government has hit political pay dirt and can do pretty much what it wants. What continues to puzzle me is how all this focus on the distribution of such images actually protects the child victims themselves.
Bart Schremer published his opinion piece recently, providing an overview of the issues that law enforcement agencies are facing. On the one hand society (or at least the media) expects law enforcement to solved all crime immediately, preferably on a modest budget. On the other hand most Dutch people would still prefer to avoid a police state along the lines of the North Korean or American model.
But in all discussions on permissible methods of detection, hacking police officers and crime-fight-using politicians is missing, is why cybercrime has grown so enormously. The fact that our reliance on IT is increasingly complex will certainly have contributed. But one other important factor is the huge digital illiteracy among the vast majority of citizens. Aside from some half-hearted campaigns, the government has done little to teach citizens anything of real use or value.
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.
Over nine years ago, I was talking to Kees Vendrik <Dutch MP) about the broken Dutch software market. Not only was it impossible to buy a top brand laptop without buying a Microsoft Windows licence, it was also impossible to visit many websites (municipalities, Dutch railways and many others) without using Internet Explorer. The latter area has greatly improved and I can lead my life using my OS and browser of choice. Only occasionally do I have to just swallow a Windows licence when buying a new laptop. Not much has improved in that area. Our national dependence on products such as MS Office has not really diminished either, despite all the wishes of our Parliament and its related governments policies.
Meanwhile, the technological seismic shift that frightened Bill Gates so much back in '95 (the web makes the operating system irrelevant) is fast becoming reality. Almost all new developments discussed by IT power players and specialists are web-based or based on open specifications and the most commonly used applications are running quite well as service in a browser.
A MP stumbles, coughing, into the doctor's surgery. There is blood pouring from the ears and nose and left eye. “Doctor, doctor, I've just had a bad fall and I think I've broken my wrist” gasps the MP. The doctor has a look and briefly feels the pulse. “Does that hurt?” “A little bit” mumbles the MP. “I don't think it's that bad” says the doctor. Unfortunately I can't check it today as the digital X-ray machine is broken”. The MP is swaying back and forth. “It's probably just a bruise, the nurse will give you a sling. Take it easy for a couple of days and come back if it's still painful.” The MP staggers out of the surgery, still bleeding from the ears, nose and eye. The doctor is already focused on the file of the next patient, because doctors are very busy.
The process described above resembles the way the Court of Audit went about answering MPs questions about our national IT strategy. The MPs asking those questions were not experts and the Court provided simplistic answers without providing any context or stopping to consider whether the symptoms might be part of a broader problem. The newly-published report failed to respond even to the superficial questions and, moreover, based its answers on minimal data. Which is a disgrace, as it is precisely the role of the Court to delve into the deeper issues.
The Lower House of the Dutch Parliament has asked the Court of Audit to investigate the problems and opportunities related to the adoption of open standards and open source software for the government's information systems. The Court has invited various experts to give their views. This blog post is my contribution.
The questions are being asked to the highest supervisory body of the country, rather than the departments responsible for implementing this policy - the Ministries of Home Affairs, and also Economic Affairs, Agriculture & Innovation - eight years after the government's first unanimous vote on this issue and the expenditure of about 5 billion euros on licensing fees. The impression given to the outside world is that Parliament is not impressed with the progress of the last eight years and believes that the relevant government departments could benefit from the external scrutiny of a neutral and objective body.
Each of the following five questions implies a series of unspoken assumptions. In order to answer the questions, it is necessary to identify and, where neccesary, challenge these underlying assumptions in order to reach a sensible answer.
In a recent column (Dutch), Frank Benneker of Amsterdam University explored the consequences of the rapidly growing use of cloud computing. The shift of computer applications from PCs and servers to a single "service" provided through a worldwide network is probably as fundamental a shift as the earlier one from mainframe computing to PCs.
Given the objectives of the Dutch Open standards and interoperability policy plan, cloud computing seems the quick and easy-to-implement solution: I hear Web 2.0 enthusiasts say “put everything on Google Docs and we are all interoperable”. But just as in the case of the "liberation" of PCs from mainframe managers/suppliers, there are problems with cloud computing – potential snakes in the grass.
In December 2004 the Dutch government decided that the dependency on dominant software providers was a problem and had to be addressed. The Dutch action plan from 2007 was the first, tentative step in dealing with this.
A short summary of my talk for the 2010 CCC SigInt conference in Cologne, Germany.
Most European governments are busy migrating important components of their IT-systems to opensource alternatives. The Netherlands was the first western country to develop a comprehensive policy for its entire public sector in 2007 but is lagging its neighbors in working implementations. The comprehensive policy in the Netherlands is focused on the practical advantages of open systems such as interoperability and lower cost and no vendor-lock, these reasons are also shared by policies in the UK and Denmark.
German, Spanish and French policies seem to have a more political dimension by also stressing national independence of critical systems and the possibility of code-audits as important reasons for going the open route. By comparing Dutch progress (and sometimes lack thereof) with our neighboring countries some lessons can be learned about what policies work and what some of the required conditions are for them to work in different political and IT-legacy environments.