I just came by an interesting post on Slashdot, A Public Funded “Microsoft Shop?”. The author works at a publicly-funded hospital and comments that he received an email from management stating:

Information Services is strategically a Microsoft shop and when talking to staff / customers we are to support this strategy. I no longer want to see comments promoting other Operating Systems.

Initially, my anti-Microsoft buzzer went off. But the post also stated that they were ordered to remove Firefox from any computers not specifically authorized by management. As usual, the Slashdot conversation degenerated into a proprietary vs open debate.

As I have to comment on the Microsoft issue, I have two remarks. First, software (an OS, a browser, a text editor, whatever) is a tool. A tool should be chosen base on whether it’s the right one for the job, not just because of who makes it. I’d like to see a major construction company state decree that they’ll only buy Stanley and DeWalt tools. What will their answer be when the plumbers realize that neither of those companies make a simple pipe wrench? “Use a hammer”? Secondly, as is evidenced by history, popularity is a relatively poor indicator of quality, and always ephemeral. Wigs were popular for wealthy men. The telegraph was popular, and many thought the telephone would never catch on. The fluoroscope was popular for shoe fitting. Racism was popular. Smoking was popular. BASIC was the greatest programming language ever. Decisions based solely on popularity are rarely good in the long term.

But, alas, enough of the Microsoft-bashing. What struck me more was the prohibition against Firefox, and what it means for technically-apt employees. Times are changing, and many of the people now entering the workforce are well-versed with technology. The days when employers could expect to give their new hires initial computer training are long gone. And, while many may not see it, the days when every new employee could be expected to know only a common “popular” system (Windows, MS Office, MSIE) are gone, too. Many people who work at universities, such as myself, are seeing browser stats that report less than 40% Windows, with an explosion of Mac-based users and (perhaps thanks to Android, Netbooks, and Ubuntu) a strong growth in the Linux user base.

The Rutgers University student computing labs have both IE and Firefox installed on the Windows machines (and we also have a *very* large number of Mac or dual-boot Windows/Mac clients) and a walk through a busy lab will reveal a strong majority of users on Firefox. Many cash-strapped students, even the ones I knew a few years ago, were using OpenOffice rather than pay for MS Office.

A similar trend can be seen in the new hires and young professionals who simply won’t settle for a corporate cell phone - Windows Mobile, iPhone or Android, they already have a phone and OS that they like, and consider a part of their lives.

There’s a very simple point here - for an increasing number of people, especially those now entering the workforce, technology is an inextricable part of their lives. It’s part of their sense of self, of expression, of free choice. Telling many people what browser they can and can’t use is like telling a new hire a decade or two ago how their handwriting had to look or what size note pad they could use. Asking many of my (even non-techie) friends to switch cell phone OS would be like telling them what color clothes or tie they have to wear to work. Telling the average 20-year-old that they can’t use instant messenger or facebook at work is like telling the average 40-year-old they can’t receive a phone call from their spouse or child. Most especially, with the pervasiveness of Internet access, connected devices and choice in browsers and other software, these choices are being seen as a part of life, a part of technology.

Lastly, and perhaps most importantly to many businesses, the role of IT as seen by the end-user is changing, and the role of technology in productivity is changing. For many young college-educated workers, IT is more of a procurement avenue than a support system. Many would happily install the software application of their choice (whether it is Firefox, OpenOffice, or something else) on their own, without the worry of a formal help desk. There’s also the issue of productivity - technologically proficient new hires are already used to a software environment. They’ve been able to choose their own applications, OS, browser, etc. Forcing them to switch - especially if they have been using an application for years and still do at home - will only result in lower productivity and some amount of frustration. I know that I, for one, have almost laughed when people advertising for Linux admin jobs said I’d be using the same Windows desktop environment as all of the users.


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