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Israeli govt snubs Microsoft, moves to open source software

Microsoft Corp. is continuing efforts to sell software upgrades to the Israeli government, despite its recent decision to stop buying Microsoft applications in protest over the Redmond, Washington, company's sales policies.

Government agencies will continue to use the Microsoft products that they already have, but will not upgrade them, and the government is promoting the development and use of open source alternatives, Ministry of Finance Vice Spokeswoman Maly Cohen said Tuesday.

Microsoft has reacted to the decision with continued sales efforts, Cohen said. "They have been trying to sell it anyhow. They didn't try to reduce the prices, but they want to keep the government as a main customer," she said.

The government is unhappy with Microsoft's refusal to sell individual programs at a reasonable price, Cohen said. "Office includes software that we don't use, and if you buy individually it costs much more than as a package," she said.

"We already have XP, and so the government decided that, as we're not in a high tech industry, there's no need to upgrade every year," Cohen said. The government will, however, meet its obligations in terms of contracts previously signed with Microsoft, she said.

Microsoft Europe Middle East Africa spokesman Tom Brookes said Tuesday that Microsoft will continue to work with the Israeli government and see what solutions it can find.

"Microsoft is very willing to discuss how we can help, although the Israeli government is of course free to use whatever technology it wishes," he said.

Microsoft takes a long-view approach to the way it works with governments, Brookes said, and if there is some way that it can work with the Israeli government it will do so, he said.

On its part, the Israeli government has also decided to encourage the development of lower-price alternatives to Microsoft, to encourage computer use across Israel, Cohen said.

"We have worked with Sun (Microsystems Inc.) and IBM (Corp.) on designing a Hebrew version of Open Office software and distributing it as an alternative to Office. It depends on the government office, but the government is now using Office, Linux and the Open Office software," she said.

Open Office is free, open source office software that was originally based on StarOffice from Sun.

The adoption of Open Office by the government has already raised interest in the software among Israelis, including those who normally are not interested in technology, said Shoshannah Forbes, who works as a software tester for Open Office.org, the organization that develops the open source program.

Microsoft software is very expensive in Israel and interest is such that she has been asked about Open Office by complete strangers in her local video store, she said. "I was asked where I worked, and when I said I worked for Open Office everyone was asking about it. It's been all over the press here," she said.

Forbes recently bought a new, high-spec computer for 2,000 Shekels (US$457), and a copy of Office to run on it would have cost the same again, she said. "It really is crazy, and so I'm kind of pushing Open Office to people I know and to people who come to me," she said.

The government decision has been key, because people did not know about alternatives and also because many government online services required that things be submitted in a Microsoft Office format, Forbes said. The change will make open source software much more useable, she said.

There has been no response so far from Microsoft in the Hebrew press, Forbes said.

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