Microsoft wants to conquer e-government

Microsoft Corp. (MSFT) may soon have a new ally in its bid for global domination - of the e-government business, that is.

At the company's "Government Leaders Conference 2001" here on Tuesday, the United Kingdom unveiled the "UK Government Gateway" portal, developed in cooperation with Microsoft. In a press conference, Andrew Pinder, who holds the title of "e-Envoy" in Prime Minister Tony Blair's administration, said that that country and Microsoft were discussing the possibility of jointly marketing the intellectual property that Microsoft helped develop for the UK.

In making the comments, Pinder said he wished to correct a published report that such an agreement had already been struck. Connie Dean, Microsoft's public-sector industry manager, confirmed that the Washington-based giant had approached UK officials about marketing the concept to other governments. Even in a global economy, such a deal between a government and a corporation would be, as Dean put it, "unusual."

"It's something we're both interested in," Dean said. Microsoft, which has 1,000 employees working in its public-sector area, is in talks with about 30 national, provincial and state governments, she said. E-government services is a large marketplace that has also attracted such powerhouse firms as IBM, Oracle and Sun Microsystems.

Governments have adopted a variety of approaches. The state of California, for example, has contracted with an array of Silicon Valley firms to develop its portal. North Carolina contracted with Yahoo; Pennsylvania teamed up with Microsoft. Four hundred delegates from 80 national, provincial and state governments have registered at the Microsoft e-government conference, according to a company spokesman.

Pinder said his government so far has paid about 15 million pounds to Microsoft and its subcontractors for developing its new e-government infrastructure, which is expected to speed up transactions between 60 million British citizens, 3 million businesses and the government. The UK turned to Microsoft to develop the system, Pinder said, after negotiations with Compaq broke down.

Pinder declared that the UK now boasts "the most advanced e-government infrastructure anywhere in the world," though only a few transactions can now be performed online - one for businesses reporting sales tax, one for employers calculating withholding taxes, and one for farmers to apply for subsidies. The latter priority, he said, was established before calamities such as hoof-and-mouth disease and mad cow disease struck on British farms. "Digital certificates" are used to ensure security, he said.

This annual conference, which continues through Wednesday, is the fourth such gathering. Within Microsoft, the e-government initiatives are an extension of their broader .Net products and strategy. In a keynote address, Chairman Bill Gates stood before a map of the world and said the XML language used in .Net will enable governments to fully integrate with the "digital economy." He described this as the third phase of e-government, with the first phase being informational Web sites and the second the availability of "simpler forms."

"Until computers get truly intelligent," Gates said with a grin, "there's not a fourth phase."

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