Air Force Offers Lesson in Computer Deals

THE JOURNAL RECORD, June 23, 1993 | Go to article overview

Air Force Offers Lesson in Computer Deals


For anyone familiar with the horror stories of Air Force procurement _ $500 ashtrays, $700 toilet seats and $1,000 hammers _ it was easy to be apprehensive when the service announced in 1991 that it planned to buy as many as 300,000 advanced personal computers.

Now, more than two years after the Air Force opened its Desktop IV competition with a vow that the contract would be a model for streamlined high-technology procurement, the first batch of computers is almost ready for delivery.

The good news is that the Air Force _ and thus the public _ actually got a good deal on the $724 million, three-year contract, under which the whole Defense Department may buy equipment. This despite all the delays caused by bureaucratic fiat and red tape, repeated protests from losing bidders, and some bombast from pork-barrel politicians.

Instead of paying premium prices for outdated technology, the military is getting top-quality commercial systems at bargain prices.

And the Desktop IV experience may even offer some lessons for private-sector businesses.

"Let's face it, if corporations bought computers the same way" as the government did in Desktop IV, said Robert A. Dornan, senior vice president of Federal Sources Inc., "our competitiveness in the world economy would crumble."

"But in the long run," Dornan hastened to add, "Desktop IV was a significant success. The Air Force tried a lot of new things.

"Instead of demanding detailed, nit-picky stuff, it called for open specifications," continued Dornan, whose consulting firm based in McLean, Va,. specialized in government technology contracts. "Instead of low price, it looked for best value. It used electronic bulletin boards for bidding. And what it wound up with was not quite state of the art, but pretty darned close."

Two companies, the Zenith Data Systems Corp. of Buffalo Grove, Ill., and Government Technology Services Inc. of Chantilly, Va., will share the contract. What they won, essentially, is a three-year hunting license to sell personal computers, peripherals and software to various Defense Department and civilian agencies, all under the Air Force umbrella contract.

Zenith Data, a subsidiary of Groupe Bull of France, appears to have the best chances for bagging government sales. Unlike most of the original bidders, it initially proposed selling computers based on the Intel Corp.'s i486 microprocessors. It was a bold step at the time, in May 1991 when the i486 was relatively new, but it paid off as the contract dragged on.

Government Technology was added to the award after several protesters, including Electronic Data Systems, Apple Computer and the Compuadd Corp., cried foul over the Air Force's decision to give the contract solely to Zenith Data.

Government Technology originally bid in the summer of 1991, including 386- and i486-based computers made by Everex Systems Inc., which has since filed for bankruptcy protection. And while 386-based PCs were popular in 1991, today they are considered outdated. Last week, in a highly unusual step, Government Technology asked for permission to revamp its bid, even before the first computers were shipped.

"Under the terms of the contract, we are allowed to refresh the technology periodically, and we, as did Zenith, plan to take advantage of that," said Deborah M. Tucker, the company's vice president for corporate communications.

She declined to say what changes the company wanted to make, but the newspaper Federal Computer Week reported that Government Technology is scrambling to find a PC maker other than Everex. It is also likely that the 386-based offerings will be abandoned. An Air Force decision on the proposed modifications is expected this month.

Compuadd, along with Sysorex Information Systems Inc. of Falls Church, Va., was the original contract winner. …

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