Tech innovation outpaces government's desire to change

Google's dispute with Interior is just a symptom of a much larger problem: The government still resists change, writes Chris Bronk.

Chris Bronk is a research fellow at Rice University’s Baker Institute for Public Policy and an adjunct instructor of computer science at Rice.

A good deal of controversy has arisen from the recent decision by Google to file suit against the Interior Department. Google claims that Interior was unduly restrictive of competition.

The rest of the federal IT community needs to carefully watch Google’s moves regarding Interior. The lawsuit is about more than a contract squabble; it’s also about cloud-based services and what venture capitalist John Doerr calls the Third Wave of computing, in which mobile rises to prominence as the productivity platform. Government must understand which players might be most helpful in moving to a new — I dread using this word — paradigm for enterprise IT in government.

I don't mean to be critical of any of the players here. Google is not emulating the contract protests lodged by defense firms over major Defense Department awards, such as the Air Force's notorious effort to select an airborne refueling tanker aircraft to replace the jets bought with taxes collected during the Eisenhower administration. Nor is Microsoft cast here as exercising monopolistic control of the government IT sector, although I do believe the federal government is still the company’s top customer.

Finally, the officials at Interior don’t deserve scorn. It just seems that they lacked the vision to understand that there might be an alternative to Microsoft products. Heaven knows when this humble columnist will entertain tapping out copy on anything other than Word.

It is all about intuition. Can anyone remember what life was like before BlackBerrys in Washington? Years ago, I was in the hard spot of trying to explain to a senior federal government official why wikis are useful in collaborative work. After some time, he held out his BlackBerry and said, “Whatever you propose has to be as intuitive as this!” For senior government executives, the managerial folks who hold the purse strings, this is anything but what they see when pundits like me start talking about cloud apps or software as a service.

The government fails to understand that almost all work, except for the really sexy stuff that goes on in Sensitive Compartmented Information Facilities, will be pushed through universal-looking pipes to devices that are basically customizable Web browsers. I’m not saying the PC is dead, just that there might be a way to see this whole Interior/Microsoft/Google business a bit differently.

Microsoft and Google will compete toe to toe in selling browser-based productivity software. For the first time, we have viable choices in word processing and spreadsheets since Lotus and WordPerfect disappeared from the desktop. There will be issues, such as interoperability and all manner of identity management headaches, but there might be some choice, which is good for consumers.

We have to accept that the paradigm for government IT is no longer a monolithic desktop standard with lots of client applications on PCs. The new look is something in which information is distributed and accessible from a variety of platforms, from desktop PC to mobile device. An added dividend will be that agencies can virtualize their services and begin managing not only data but also information.

I look forward to following the lawsuit and watching the fireworks fly as Microsoft and Google compete the way Honda and Toyota do for customers.

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