Visit's politics will prove tricky for Gates

The stakes in the open source software debate skyrocketed in the last 24 hours with the announcement that Microsoft supremo Bill Gates will land in Australia late this month during which he will have talks with Prime Minister John Howard.

For all the warm and fuzzy accolades Howard and Gates are sure to bestow upon each other, the truth of the matter is that both are under siege and need their reputations boosted, albeit for very different reasons.

The Howard government's reputation on ICT issues has been flagging for years, while Microsoft has been forced to confront the twin-headed beast of open source and its own poor track record on security.

The real question is what can be put on the bargaining table to allow both sides to walk away looking like winners. In this respect, the timing of the visit is at best mutually opportunistic and at worst naively optimistic in what it hopes to accomplish.

Firstly, the timing of Gates' visit potentially sends some very strong political signals. John Howard is hard at work on his undeclared election campaign, as too is his staunchly conservative comrade in arms George W Bush for his November poll.

Then, seemingly out of nowhere, up pops Bill Gates.

Howard has worked very hard to sell his strong ties with US powerbrokers to the Australian electorate as a positive, and it is safe to assume he will use the arrival of one of the world's most powerful and influential men to his political advantage.

Gates and Microsoft will be only too aware of this, and as such Gates' visit will be interpreted by many as an overt political signal that Microsoft is backing Howard.

Another political dimension is the apparent snubbing of Mark Latham and Labor at a time when the odds of Howard's re-election are still not far short of even money.

Labor sources told Computerworld that they were as yet unaware of any invitation to meet with Gates. For its part, Microsoft is refusing to divulge any detail on who Gates is meeting – other than Howard - on the grounds of security. Depending on which way you look at it, this means that either Microsoft thinks it will come off second best meeting Labor, or Gates is backing Howard.

Either way, it will provide a golden opportunity for communication and IT shadows Lindsay Tanner and Kate Lundy to further berate the government's less than spectacular track record on IT and communication, aided by Howard's unenthusiastic ICT caretaker Daryl Williams.

A less-public aspect of the visit is the strong connection of two senior regional Microsoft staffers with the Liberal party and John Howard's office, connections that are sure to have been utilised for this visit.

In terms of what Microsoft wants from the federal government, Gates' visit reportedly being about the launch of a feel-good software campaign is as transparent as Steve Ballmer's launch of a mobile phone in conjunction with Telstra.

Microsoft has made no secret it is deeply concerned with the rise and rise in popularity of open source software in both the public and private sectors and will undoubtedly make fast work behind closed doors of attempting to demolish its credibility.

Microsoft was also recently caught unawares by the recent release of the Australian Government Information Management's Office's guide to ICT sourcing - a document that says little about open source, but it is one it would have dearly sought to influence.

The visit of Gates will now secure Microsoft's place at the high table when it comes to bargaining over federal ICT strategy.

But it will also come at a very dear cost if Labor is elected later this year. To this degree, it would appear that Howard has cunningly seized the advantage and that some in Redmond may wish to re-evaluate their strategic counsel.

When you enter into the adversarial politics of an election campaign, somebody has to walk away the loser.

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