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What would you do with millions of pounds?

Windows XP, the UK National Health Service and £5.5m of public money. Simon Brew can’t be the only one weeping…

Simon Brew

There’s a lot that you can do with £5.5m. You could employ a couple of hundred people for a year for starters, or set up some small businesses. You could be sensible and invest in technologies, or you could pay for lots of operations. Alternatively, you could buy lots of sweets or several million copies of the Adam Sandler movie of your choice.

The British National Health Service, however, has handed over that amount of money to Microsoft. And in return, it’s getting an extra 15 months of support for a Microsoft product. It’s the kind of thing that doesn’t really take too long to sink in.

Microsoft has been a significant beneficiary of the National Health Service in the UK for some time. NHS machines work heavily on the Windows operating system and Microsoft also licences other software and provides training and support as well. As such, estimates suggest that as many as one million PCs used by the NHS use Windows XP.

Thing is, as has been well reported, Microsoft doesn’t want people using Windows XP any more. It doesn’t get much financial benefit, it argues that it’s less secure than more recent iterations of Windows, and as such, it’s been trying to shut off support for the operating system for many years.

In April, it finally managed to do so. No more security patches, no more updates – and the NHS was faced with the possibility of a substantial number of computers being more vulnerable, as a result of a decision made by a company to stop supporting its product.

And herein lies the problem. There are many things that most of us think that a National Health Service should spend its money on. Things to do with health would be the top of most people’s list – software support would not. The NHS hasn’t come out of this perfectly itself, having taken too long to wake up to the very real problem it faces by using so many copies of an unsupported operating system. But it’s the most depressing solution that it has decided to throw more money at a company that, in part, is responsible for the problem.

At the very least, there’s an opportunity here. The NHS, if it wants to stop giving Microsoft millions every year for support updates for its old software, will have to upgrade both its PCs and its operating systems. Surely, surely, this is when a longer term change needs to be made. Where is the continued advantage of tying a service that already has demands on every pound it spends to a proprietary software company? I’m not naïve, there would still be major support packages involved, but the change in the status quo would still bring long-term economies and, more importantly, a better long-term approach for managing such crucial technology infrastructure.

This doesn’t need to be confined to the UK either. It’s idealistic, but couldn’t there be the heart of a system that could work beyond Britain, tailored to individual countries and their demands? It’s surely no more idealistic than a one-size-fits-all Windows XP approach…!