A George Cross floats on Cloud 9

Published on The Malta Independent¸ on 24 July 2011

It was tempting to give this article the title “Austin floats on Cloud 9” (with thanks to the IT Minister responsible for Arriva¸ ARMS¸ Smart City¸ Sea Malta and now the ingenious Microsoft deal). But the writer is not bent on pulling punches¸ preferring to remain agnostic on partisan politics.

The government has unveiled a sweeping strategy that will establish¸ in partnership with Microsoft¸ an innovation centre and create its own internal “cloud computing” system – such as that used by other EU countries. Dr Gatt was reported to have said¸ “The goal of the innovation centre is to stimulate a strong ICT skills base in Cloud Computing and the development of Cloud Computing Solutions and Services that can be marketed locally and beyond our shores.”

Malta is a merited choice for such an investment¸ having ranked first in EU eGovernment Benchmarking in 2010¸ ranked fifth highest in the percentage of employees with ICT skills in Europe¸ and fourth among European countries in terms of eSkills activities by the government. The innovation deal is an initiative of Claudio Grech CEO of MITA¸ the same person who for a short while acted as CEO and main negotiator on behalf of the government on the multi-million euro residential ICT city being built at Ricasoli by Tecom. MITA’s three strategic drivers are job creation¸ support of education and development¸ and technology. When fully functional¸ the innovation centre will in turn save millions of euros a year in licence fees and pave the way for jobs of particularly trained workers in the new economy.

The key part of the new strategy outlined by Dr Gatt will be a five-year €26.8 million strategic partnership agreement with Microsoft Corporation¸ which includes lower enterprise licences¸ educational initiatives and the setting up of a Microsoft Innovation Centre that will be a pioneer focusing on Cloud Computing. Press releases state that the target date of completion is next year and included in the Enterprise Agreement is a provision aimed at trimming the annual licensing fees charged by Microsoft by 12 per cent. This is swelling but Apple Inc or Google may well have wanted to compete. It means the island will be using the latest version of Windows 7 and when fully functional the civil service is expected to boost its productivity and render an improved service to taxpayers. The novel idea to partner with Microsoft brings advantages such as free use of office software in schools benefiting some 28¸000 users in state primary and secondary schools¸ including students¸ teachers and administration. It is a pity that the digital gap in certain pockets of government administration may not immediately gain from the enhanced mobility¸ communication and remote management offered. This is no fault of Dr Gatt; it is an educational handicap due to the low intake of students at secondary and tertiary level opting for science and advanced ICT subjects. Next year the proverbial harvest will be rich but there will not be enough field workers to reap it. Imagine¸ if you can¸ the entire island using Cloud computing¸ availing itself of the latest technology and speeding many times its access time for retrieving / processing data.

The government can also push for “open source” software to be used more wid