Make no mistake: IT contracts are largely commodity buys that are won and lost on price. That remains true even when a contract is valued at a whopping $10 billion and has been embroiled in controversy. And, yet, here we are: Conspiracy theories abound around the decision by the Department of Defense to award to Microsoft the Joint Enterprise Defense Infrastructure, or JEDI, contract. (The DoD made the announcement around close of business on a Friday; a clever habit of the Pentagon for its most contentious programs.)
And it is true that the actual decision itself — to give the award to Microsoft and not Amazon — may seem to be rooted, at least in part, in squabbling of recent months. We repeatedly heard how the odds always seemed stacked in Amazon’s favor, spurring lawsuits and what some believed to be a coordinated smear campaign by Oracle. All the noise has succeeded in repeatedly delaying the program and causing Pentagon leadership to handle it with kid gloves.
So then why Microsoft? Some have pointed to President Donald Trump’s seeming disdain for Jeff Bezos properties — notably The Washington Post but by extension Amazon. Certainly his comments could pave the way for a protest. But driving the award decision? Even in this political environment, I can’t believe such disregard for federal acquisition regulations would fly.
But this much is indeed true: Amid all the legal and political wrangling around this contract, Microsoft did become a simpler choice. Perhaps strategically, the company stayed out of the fray — opting to move quietly along while other competitors led the mudslinging. Microsoft was, quite frankly, less controversial.
Of course, good behavior can’t drive contract decisions any more than politics. But again, a JEDI award is at the heart an IT contract. It calls for capabilities of which Microsoft and Amazon are each perfectly capable of providing. Either company can perform the work. Both have provided secure cloud services to government agencies in the past. So all things being pretty equal, that differentiation typically doesn’t comes from the solution itself, but rather from the price point. How thin is a company willing to go on its margins? What infrastructure is in place to support requirements?
While we don’t necessarily have specific answers to those questions, we do know that Microsoft and Amazon are technology giants that can afford to invest as needed to meet requirements and remain competitive.
So, then, why not Microsoft? That argument won’t spare the JEDI contract from being protested necessarily — a near certainty for any large contract these days, even more so for one that brought with it so much baggage. Nor will it even promise that the award won’t be overturned. Maybe Amazon succeeds in arguing a bias, or maybe any one of the onetime competitors convinces the Government Accountability Office that the procurement was flawed from the get-go. There’s a convincing argument to be made there.
But for now, I’d argue again: Why not Microsoft?
Jill Aitoro was editor of Defense News. She was also executive editor of Sightline Media's Business-to-Government group, including Defense News, C4ISRNET, Federal Times and Fifth Domain. She brought over 15 years’ experience in editing and reporting on defense and federal programs, policy, procurement, and technology.