Over the top 'down under'

FRAMINGHAM (11/05/2003) - Try as I might, I just can't seem to get away from "the Microsoft question." In the midst of a September spell in Australia, I saw what to date has been the most over-the-top attack on Microsoft Corp.- characterizing the company, courtesy of its security bugs, as a danger to the government and citizens of Australia.

The story appeared in the Sept. 23 edition of The Australian Financial Review, a well-respected business daily.

The story focuses on a Bill Caelli. He is the head of the school of software engineering and data communications at Queensland University and described as a "strong critic of the (Australian) government's policy on computer security" - which he clearly deems unsatisfactory.

These quotes give you an idea where he is going: "It's about time the government stopped treating the IT industry with kid gloves." "The job of the government is maintaining the community security and safety. And that must extend to computer systems that control our critical infrastructure, and be necessitated by legislation. If not, the (cyber-attack) risk will simply become miles too high."

As I read this, I cringed. While things have to change in IT, I don't believe that government edict is the way to achieve that.

I couldn't help but think here was a 21st century Ralph Nader. In Nader's 1965 book, Unsafe at any Speed, he attacked the U.S. auto industry, charging that it was not looking out for the public safety. Government, he said, was the answer. And, the U.S. government responded with legislation that ultimately made driving in the U.S. safer.

But is this the way to solve IT problems? Caelli obviously thinks that it is.

The story says that "his plan" is to "force businesses to use secure . . . computers," and not "cheap commodity software and computer systems."

For years, the U.S. government took this approach - viewing itself as special and requiring special versions of just about everything. This caused bloated budgets and made for some happy sales representatives in the various Federal Systems divisions of many technology vendors.

Fortunately, where possible the government has moved to using what it calls COTS (Commercial off-the-shelf systems) rather than specially written and priced systems.

This Australian movement would seem to be pushing to go back the other way - at a major cost to taxpayers.

But like it or not, change by edict does exert an influence. Just look at Japan.

A few years back, the Japanese government apparently mandated (I don't know the details) that certain internetworking devices needed to support IPv6 to be on the approved list for purchase. That was enough to motivate a number of vendors, and now IPv6 support is becoming more mainstream - at least for high-end, service-provider-class devices.

Will more government tinkering be the way to get Microsoft to deliver - or shut it out of certain markets? If what is happening down under takes hold, that's the way it could go.

Tolly is president of The Tolly Group, a strategic consulting and independent testing company in Boca Raton, Fla. He can be reached at ktolly@tolly.com.

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