Ballmer arrives in Australia to lukewarm reception

Von Julian Bajkowski

Microsoft Corp. CEO Steve Ballmer has jetted into Australia for an end-of-financial year stocktake on his company"s Australian subsidiary, only to receive a lukewarm reception from politicians and CIOs as internal speculation mounts that local managing director Steve Vamos is shopping for a career in politics and a key staffer deserts the organization.

Officially, Ballmer"s visit is being explained away as a "low-key" visit to meet with customers and partners. But many of the vendor"s biggest customers are maintaining they were invited for an audience with Microsoft"s second in command at "unfeasibly short notice".

Yesterday Ballmer entertained around ten mostly state government senior executives and CIOs for lunch, including Australian Department of Defence CIO Air Vice Marshall John Monaghan, New South Wales CIO Paul Edgecumbe and Victorian CIO Jane Treadwell.

With Queensland, New South Wales and Victoria now all sporting their own whole of government CIOs, Microsoft has more at stake than ever in balancing relations with the frequently quarrelling spheres of state and federal governments.

Sources present at Ballmer"s four-star lunch have told Computerworld of friction between Microsoft"s U.S. staff and its local operatives over protocol matters -- particularly the absence of influential federal CIOs from Centrelink and Australian Taxation Office.

Both agencies are currently in the middle of IT overhauls worth hundreds of millions of dollars and are aimed at achieving interoperability across their desktop, midrange and mainframe applications and infrastructure.

A spokesperson for Centrelink confirmed last night that an invitation to meet Ballmer had been extended to the agency"s senior management, but they were unfortunately unable to attend.

The ATO was not immediately available for comment.

Similarly, the politician responsible for guiding the Australian Government"s IT purchasing arrangements, Special Minister of State Senator Eric Abetz, also received an invitation to personally meet Mr Ballmer -- but was unlikely to travel from Hobart for the auspicious occasion according to a spokesman.

Computerworld is awaiting a reply from the office of Communications Minister, Senator Helen Coonan as to whether she will meet Mr Ballmer. Meanwhile, a source close to Microsoft"s external public relations company has told Computerworld a senior member of the vendor"s external communications team has left the company after internal tensions reached "boiling point" over management style.

Calls to the staffer"s phone went unanswered yesterday, with a recorded message stating all enquiries should be directed to Mr Vamos" public affairs manager or Microsoft"s public relations firm.

One issue understood to be causing pain within the Microsoft"s local operation is ongoing ambiguity surrounding the intentions of current managing director Steve Vamos and whether he is seeking a new career challenge, possibly in politics.

Senior spokespeople for both Microsoft and its public relations firm were last night unavailable for comment on either management tensions or Mr Vamos" long-term intentions, saying only that Mr Ballmer"s communications strategy was being directed at the behest of Microsoft Australia. Asked whether Mr Ballmer would announce a series of IT skills traineeships as part of his visit, a spokesperson for Microsoft"s public relations firm said Ballmer would be making no media announcements whatsoever.

Both Microsoft and its public relations firm were unwilling to comment on Vamos" future career path.

Moreover, the public relations firm confirmed Ballmer was not available for interviews with the technology press.

E-government white paper contains helpful hints

If Microsoft CEO Steve Ballmer has one message to pitch to Australia"s CIOs, it appears to be that the vendor is prepared to support open standards for software and Web services in the name of interoperability and e-government.

Computerworld has located a white paper circulated by the vendor to public sector CIOs and their ministerial minders in an effort to convey the message that signing up for Microsoft"s proprietary software does not mean a lock-out on either interoperability or Web services fronts.

"Microsoft software can talk to mainframes and minicomputers from IBM and other manufacturers; other operating systems such as the Mac OS and various UNIX derivatives including Linux," the paper states.

At 16,000 words, the paper stresses Microsoft provides "extensive support for open standards across its product range" making it more than suitable for silo-busting endeavors.

The guide also provides some useful terminology for CIOs who may not be quite sure about how to word their procurement policies to stipulate requirements for interoperability.

"The Government encourages the use of recognized standards and broadly licensed proprietary standards in all public procurements," the Microsoft white paper kindly suggests. A keyword search of the document failed to reveal a single reference to the term "open source."