A German government agency's apparent recommendation that its citizens use alternatives to Microsoft's Internet Explorer because of its ongoing security problems, has become the source of industry intrigue.

The Federal Office for Information Security (BSI) has been forced to clarify that it only meant Explorer and not all Microsoft software. We think.

A spokesman for the BSI, Michael Dickopf, said: "Microsoft products are the target of many virus writers. If computer users want to avoid viruses and Trojans, they may want to consider using alternatives to Microsoft software." He stated that he did not recommend people steer clear of Microsoft products, however, refuting a press release issued by browser competitor Opera.

The Opera press release, entitled "German Government Computing Security Body Recommends Switch to Opera," was based on a story published by The Register, called "Germans develop nasty case of IE jitters, according to Opera spokesman Pal Hvistendahl. Opera admitted it did not contact the BSI directly before it issued the release.

The Register report was in turn, based on a story published on Saturday in the German daily newspaper Berliner Zeitung. In that story, Dickopf was one of several experts interviewed on the topic of computer viruses and worms, and on recent phishing attacks in the country. The BSI spokesman was paraphrased as saying that he "indirectly advised" Internet users to switch from IE to Mozilla or Opera. He was directly quoted saying: "Whoever doesn't use Internet Explorer can't be affected by these viruses and worms."

The IT industry is closely monitoring the procurement behaviour of governments, which traditionally have been big users of Microsoft products but increasingly are becoming interested in the use of open-source alternatives to save money and reduce security risks.

In Europe, the German government has been at the forefront of promoting the use of open source software in the public sector. Cost has been the key driver for its support of Linux and other open source products. But over the past year, security has also become an issue.

Microsoft has responded to the developments by offering discounts to the country's vast public sector and agreeing to provide special assistance with software security.

The fact that a simple statement of fact has blown up into a big issue, where graduations of intent have to be spelt out, is just one indication however of the importance of Microsoft to government IT systems. And, of course, the media's obsession with the software giant.