Hill probes Mac-PC controversy

The Johnson Space Center's controversial policy to standardize all the center's workstations on a single PC platform has now drawn fire from Congress which is concerned that NASA may have violated fair-and-open-competition rules.

Last week a group of House members was garnering support for a letter they planned to send to NASA administrator Daniel Goldin expressing concerns about JSC's move to replace the center's Apple Computer Inc. Macintosh workstations with PCs that run Microsoft Corp.'s Windows 95.

In addition the House Space and Aeronautics Subcommittee which oversees NASA appropriations has contacted Goldin with concerns about the JSC policy according to a source close to the subcommittee. Subcommittee chairman Rep. Dana Rohrabacher (R-Calif.) has requested that Goldin brief subcommittee members on the policy.

Apple for the first time has thrust itself into the debate surrounding the policy. Gil Amelio chairman of the company was scheduled to meet with Goldin on June 6 in Washington D.C. An Apple spokeswoman Rhona Hamilton confirmed that Amelio was discussing Apple's concerns with regard to the JSC policy but declined to provide any more details.

JSC chief information officer Jack Garman ordered the switch in 1995 and drew heavy criticism from JSC Mac users and from NASA's Office of the Inspector General. In a report last November the IG concluded that Garman did not follow agency policy adding that the move may have negatively affected the center's space flight mission and was not cost-effective [FCW Jan. 20 1996].

A draft of the House letter obtained by Federal Computer Week characterizes the switch to PCs as possibly "in violation of your legal obligation to ensure fair and open competition in your procurement practices." It instructs Goldin to assess the policy and ensure that Garman is adhering to federal procurement policies that allow fair and open competition in the acquisition of information technology.

The letter carries the signature of Rep. Nick Lampson (D-Texas) a member of the House Space and Aeronautics Subcommittee. Staff members from the offices of Rep. Zoe Lofgren (D-Calif.) who also sits on the subcommittee and Rep. Tom Delay (R-Texas) whose district abuts the district that includes the Houston-based JSC confirmed that the two congressmen planned to sign the letter as well. A legislative staff member from Lofgren's office said the letter was expected to be sent to Goldin late last week.

Tom Luedtke NASA's deputy associate administrator for procurement said it is not uncommon to receive congressional inquiries regarding procurements. "[Inquiries occur] just because there's a lot of people who would like to get the business and not everybody does " he said.

Although he said he had not seen the letter to Goldin Luedtke said NASA crafts all procurements to ensure fair and open competition. "If there is a legitimate need to have one particular system and we know there's only one company that makes that system it may be a sole source."

A Lampson staff member said constituent concerns about the procurement process at JSC prompted the crafting of the letter. "The congressman has made his interest in this issue known to NASA and we're glad to give them time to ask the questions within their own ranks " the staff member said. "This is about making sure the contract award process is fair and open."

Replacements Amid Protests

Although NASA congressional relations staff informed the congressmen that only 900 Macintosh machines were replaced the legislators have now learned that 3 500 to 4 000 Macintosh machines as well as other vendors' software were replaced even after scientists and engineers in several NASA divisions protested the replacement according to the letter.

The letter references the IG report which also found that Garman's selection of the PC standard did not take user requirements into consideration.In response to the report the associate administrator for space flight sent a letter directing JSC officials to remove the policy. Garman said he would remove the written policy detailing the center's migration to Windows 95 but added that he still planned to implement the move to the Microsoft operating system.

Carl Peckinpaugh a procurement attorney with Washington D.C.-based Winston & Strawn and an FCW columnist said recent procurement reform has whittled away much of the oversight mechanism that was inherent in federal government procurement. As a result he said members of Congress have begun to step up these types of agency inquiries about procurement activities.Bob Dornan senior vice president of Federal Sources Inc. McLean Va. questioned the controversy surrounding the JSC move to standardize on Microsoft products in light of recent trends in the federal government to migrate to Windows 95 and Windows NT.

"Apple has for years seen the handwriting on the wall - when they see many of the [requests for proposals] coming out...that exclude Apple from participating " he said. "They fought that battle years ago and lost. When you see a huge [migration to Microsoft products] in industry and government...and another agency tries to go in the same direction what did they do wrong? What's so unique about them?"

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