My government is software-stupid

I just checked, and my State government's website here in Australia has 43 pages with the message that Adobe Acrobat Reader is needed if I want to view the page's downloadable PDFs.

One variant of the message is This a Portable Document Format (PDF) file and requires the use of Adobe Acrobat Reader. The Reader is easy to download and is free of charge. The link takes you to a download page at Another variant is To view these forms you will need Adobe Acrobat Reader. You can download it for free from

There are a lot of PDF viewers other than Acrobat Reader, and they're just as free. Safari and Google Chrome browsers even have built-in PDF viewers. So why is my government telling fibs? Does it create its PDFs with Adobe Acrobat software, and does its product licence require it to recommend Acrobat Reader when making those PDFs publicly available? Or is my government just software-stupid?

Microsoft rules, not OK

The balance of evidence is tilted towards stupidity. Every year that same government pays very, very large sums of taxpayer's money to another American multinational, Microsoft Corporation. The money goes to buy software products, software licences and software support services. Nearly all the products have free equivalents. Why doesn't the government save money by using free software, instead of the Microsoft offerings?

Over the years I've heard four explanations. The first is that the government needs consistency across its operations. You can't have a Windows server talking to a non-Windows server, and you can't expect one department to be using Microsoft Office and another LibreOffice.

That last statement, of course, is almost entirely nonsense. The government's Windows servers talk to Unix and Linux servers all over the world. And I've used OpenOffice (and more recently LibreOffice) to exchange .doc, .docx, .xls, xlsx and .ppt files with government officers for years. None of those public servants knew I wasn't using Microsoft Office. 'Format' is not the same as 'application'.

'Consistency' is also pretty weak. Other government purchasing (vehicles, office supplies, uniforms, communications, advertising etc) isn't consistent. Purchasing officers look for the best value, and that creates diversity in what the government buys and uses.

The second explanation is that Microsoft products are all industry standard and the best available. I can't argue with the first claim, just point out that it doesn't have much to do with quality. Fleas in your straw bedding was industry standard in traveler's accomodation for many centuries; we've moved on from there. I can certainly argue with 'best available', having dropped Excel after discovering Gnumeric.

The third explanation is that particular Microsoft products have advanced features unavailable in free alternatives. Fine and good for the few power users; buy them Microsoft software and licences. For the other 90% who never use those advanced features, how about saving some taxpayer's money?

The fourth explanation has a strong ring of truth to it: the government's IT people have training and proficiency in the use of Microsoft products. IT staff might be reluctant to retrain with free software alternatives, and that retraining would cost money. But why should IT staff control public expenditure on software? And wouldn't the retraining cost a lot less than the money saved by shifting, wherever possible, to FOSS?

#Passing on stupidity

I started thinking about these issues (again) when I discovered that my government's education department is offering adult education courses in Word, Excel and PowerPoint. Not word processing, spreadsheets and presentation software, but the Microsoft products, without the corporation's name appearing in the course advertising. The department is more liberal in its course offerings on browser use and image editing (more or less 'bring your own software'), so why Office components, specifically?

To put that in another context, imagine that the government had contracted with Toyota for the supply of all its vehicles, then offered driving courses like Corolla: get started with small cars and Coaster: learn how to drive and maintain a small bus. Wouldn't that smell of unnecessary favouritism towards a certain corporation?

The Office courses are all the more remarkable for another couple of reasons. First, our national curriculum carefully avoids mentioning specific software products. Primary and secondary school students are expected to learn how to do word processing and how to make tables, not how to use Word and Excel. That leaves the choice of educational software to the schools. More importantly, those adult education courses in Office products are targeted at older and poorer people, who would appreciate learning how to use free, rather than expensive, software.

So I asked, and an education department officer replied that those 'courses are designed around software that [the course provider] has licenses and IT support for'. We use them, so should you. We're software-stupid, join us.

#The stupidity habit

Also on my state government's website are a range of downloadable application forms. There are typically two identical versions, one in Microsoft Word format and one in PDF. Unless you have PDF editing tools, you have to print out the PDF, fill it in, scan it and email it back to the government. The Word version can be filled in electronically, then emailed. In nearly all cases no signature is required. You just fill in the form's blank spaces with the information requested.

Well, that's great unpaid advertising for Microsoft and Adobe, but why not replace downloadables with an online form with server-side data validation, to save having a government employee re-enter the information filled in by the applicant? Maybe because your average public servant knows how to create a form in Word, but wouldn't have a clue how to build an online version, meaning that the government's IT staff would have to put a generic HTML form template on the state government network. Or build one on request from a department. Too hard, apparently.

And away from government, this year the one university in my State signed a three-year Microsoft Campus Agreement that ensures all University-owned computers are license compliant with a defined suite of Microsoft desktop software. This agreement also covers all upgrades of the nominated software as new versions are released. Sounds like all those Macs on campus will have to be loaded with Microsoft-for-Mac software. One 'benefit' of the agreement is that staff and students get cheap versions of Office for their Macs and Windows machines under the Home Use Program. With one small condition: The MS Campus Agreement allows for the use of Microsoft Office on personally-owned computers for work-related purposes only. Staff members who install the software under the terms of the MS Campus Agreement are not licensed to use the software on personally-owned computers at home for personal purposes.

#Patient, slightly hopeful

Sometimes I feel I'm living in a parallel universe. My computers look like those used by the government and are just as productive, yet unlike the government I pay nothing for my software and there are no restrictive conditions on that software's distribution or use.

The UK and India have been leading the way towards FOSS use by government in the English-speaking world, and I can only hope that my software-stupid State follows that lead in future.


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