Microsoft has unveiled a product package aimed at local and regional e-government initiatives, in the midst of growing government opposition in Europe to proprietary software.
Microsoft's Citizen Service Platform includes applications and templates designed for local and regional governments primarily in Europe and the US. It is built on products including SharePoint, Office Live and Windows Server.
While Microsoft has been selling software to the public sector for years, it has recently begun focusing on local governments after discovering that many people interact with their local governments more often than the federal government, said Ralph Young, vice president of Microsoft's Worldwide Public Sector group.
Europe alone has over 80,000 local and regional governments, Young said.
Governments can use the Citizen Service Platform to create portals, manage documents, deploy alert systems in the case of emergencies and create and manage citizen information databases that can be shared among different agencies.
Microsoft is introducing the product as it faces mounting opposition in Europe. Some governments are migrating to open-source products as a way to avoid being locked into a single vendor of proprietary software.
Others, such as the Netherlands, are taking a more extreme route. Late last year the Dutch parliament mandated that government organisations choose open source over proprietary software if a viable product is available. Agencies must also use open standards. The national government must comply with the new rules by May, with local governments following by the end of this year.
Young was unfazed by the mandate. "We have many opportunities in the Netherlands to work with local and regional governments," he said. "We don't see any federal mandates having real impact locally because of local jurisdictions' ability to make decisions in their best interest in terms of how to better serve citizens."
Microsoft could be counting on local governments having autonomy from such federal mandates, said Mark Anderson, a consultant and founder of the Strategic News Service. "There are a lot of times when a government will posture and it doesn't really intend that posture to be carried through the rest of the country," he said.
Still, some European government agencies may be predisposed to choose software other than Microsoft's, more so since the software giant began pushing its Open XML document format, Anderson said. Microsoft is in the process of attempting to have Open XML be accepted as a standard by the International Organization for Standardization. Open XML competes with the Open Document Format promoted by IBM. Critics of Open XML accused Microsoft of stacking votes in the standardisation process, souring some in Europe on Microsoft even further.
Microsoft thinks that cost will determine decisions for many local governments. "It's much less a religious discussion about open-source and commercial software as it is about what are the solutions available that governments can see value from," said Young. "Local governments are empowered to make decisions and if they say 'This is the best value for the dollar I spend over the life of a service capability, that will govern my decision making process'."