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Microsoft denies role in British Linux flop

City of Birmingham pulls plug on open-source desktop project, but Redmond says it didn't offer special Windows XP discounts.

Microsoft has insisted that it did not slash its software prices to encourage England's Birmingham City Council to abort its Linux project.

Birmingham pulled the plug on its open-source desktop project after it found that an upgrade to Windows XP was cheaper. Birmingham City Council had planned to roll out 1,500 Linux PCs across its libraries, but in the end converted just 200 PCs.

Industry experts have suggested that Microsoft offered Birmingham special discounts to sway the balance in favor of XP. But Microsoft firmly denied these allegations. Asked whether Microsoft had offered special discounts to Birmingham, Nick McGrath, head of platform strategy told ZDNet UK, "No, not all. We are in discussions with every single local authority. There is a common buying framework."

McGrath added, "The decision was very much taken by Birmingham."

The Birmingham City Council itself is slightly less clear on this point. When asked whether the council managed to get a better deal from Microsoft as a result of its trial, IT chief Glyn Evans told ZDNet UK that "we did not seek a better deal from Microsoft nor was that an objective (stated or unstated) of the project." However, Evans didn't say whether any discount had been received.

Many observers have claimed that Microsoft offers inducements to local authorities to stay with Windows if they show a willingness to switch to open source.

"Microsoft is going out of its way to lower prices to get deals," said Laurent Lachal, a senior analyst at Ovum. "If it lowers it to the point where it makes no sense to deploy open source, then it is a good deal for the organization."

Bob Griffiths, international secretary at SOCITM, the association for public sector IT professionals that supported the Birmingham project through the Open Source Academy, acknowledged that Microsoft had been "involved in negotiations" with the council. He said he was unsure whether Birmingham had gained an advantage through its Linux pilot in bargaining with Microsoft, but added that other councils had successfully used that tactic.

"I'm not sure that's the case with them. But other authorities have claimed advantages," said Griffiths.

The London borough of Newham has been at the center of such suggestions after it reverted to Windows in 2004 after running a trial of Linux. It denies the allegations.

Richard Thurston reported for ZDNet UK in London.