Newfoundland hasn’t ruled out Linux for word processing

The government of Newfoundland’s decision to replace WordPerfect with Microsoft Word acts against the best interests of a cash-strapped province that could take advantage of free software alternatives, according to a local Linux user.

Shortly before Newfoundland’s Information Technology Management Division signed a three-year contract with Microsoft Canada to deploy its Office products, Brian M. Hunt posted an open letter to premier Danny Williams on the site Linux Today asking his government to reconsider their options. Hunt said any decision to choose Microsoft over software like would contravene the first objective of the province’s Treasury Board IT procurement policy, which emphasizes maximizing the value of all IT acquisitions.

“”Its tangible and intangible costs are extensive and incalculable, including the cost of licensing, cost of anti-virus software, cost of lost productivity due to unstable software, cost of maintaining the upgrade cycle, cost of technical support,”” wrote Hunt, who could not be reached for comment at press time. “”There are alternatives, and failure to examine them would be a travesty.””

Harry Hutchings, the IT Management Division’s director, said the government does look at alternative platforms, but that it signed the Microsoft contract because it would be cheaper than buying the same software off the shelf. Newfoundland had maintained a long-standing relationship with Ottawa-based Corel, but employees had to deal with more Word documents than anything else.

“”We’re dealing with our federal and provincial counterparts across the country . . . I think all other provinces, apart from PEI, have adopted Word as their standard,”” he said.

Microsoft’s contract with Newfoundland could run three years but the government could renegotiate at any time, said Hutchings, who added he is experimenting with alternative programs such as Sun Microsystems’ StarOffice.

“”It’s really a pricing arrangement,”” he said. “”We could stop buying their product today and that would be the end of it . . . we’re looking at alternatives just the same as anyone else is.””

Public sector spending is a particularly sensitive issue in Newfoundland given the local government’s pledge to reduce costs, said Michael Rayment, who teaches in the Department of Computer Science at Memorial University of Newfoundland.

“”They’re in this tight money situation here in Newfoundland,”” he said. “”Are you going to justify paying millions of dollars for something that you can get for free? If you’ve had some real need for this, I could sort of see it, but you don’t.””

Rayment said he has been trying to convince the local Department of Education to bring Linux products into the forefront of their purchasing strategy.

“”I was talking to a teacher the other day, and 90 per cent of what they were doing was word processing or accessing the Internet,”” he said. “”All that can be done quite easily under Linux.””

Hutchings insisted open source has not been ruled out in Newfoundland, but much will depend on its market share position over the next few years.

“”Some people will say that from their point of view that the die is cast, and that this is the end of the story,”” he said. “”I think (Linux) is an extremely credible alternative, but it has to get a stronger foothold in corporate and in the public sector.””

Several state governments in the United States, including California, Florida and Massachusetts, are creating policies that promote the use of open source in favour of Microsoft products.

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