EU institutions accused of doing nothing to free themselves from dependence on Microsoft

The Commission should set an example on Document Freedom Day, lobby groups for open standards and open source software said

The European Commission and European Parliament are doing nothing to rid themselves of their dependance on Microsoft, two lobby groups said Wednesday, Document Freedom Day.

The Free Software Foundation Europe (FSFE) and Open Forum Europe urged EU institutions to support open standards in an open letter to Giancarlo Vilella, president of the European Parliament's Directorate-General for Innovation and Technological Support. He also chairs the body that coordinates IT activities for government agencies including Parliament, the Commission and the Council of the E.U.

The letter highlights several problems, including that video streams of Parliament and Council hearings are still only available in the proprietary Microsoft Windows Media Player and Silverlight formats. This prevents EU citizens who wish to participate in the legislative process from watching without being forced to use the products of a single company, the groups wrote.

The groups said they have been asking the Commission to adopt a more open or cross-platform video format since 2008.

Though they were told at the time that Parliament was working on a new system for streaming that would be built on open standards that would be accessible to all, nothing seems to have happened since. "We would be interested to know if this project is still in development," they wrote.

Another problem they raised is the Commission's dependance on Microsoft as the single provider of its office automation software.

The Commission has admitted to this dependence in a response to written questions Pirate Party member of the European Parliament (MEP) Amelia Andersdotter sent in January to Catherine Day, the Secretary-General of the Commission.

"The Commission is in a situation of effective captivity with Microsoft as regards its desktop operating system and office productivity tools" like word processing and spread sheets, the Commission noted in an annex to its response.

The Commission has said open source isn't a viable alternative and will likely continue to use Microsoft products after its office software contracts expire this May.

The use and development of open source alternatives for desktop operating systems and productivity tools has been slow, the Commission noted in the document it sent to Andersdotter, adding that the adoption of such solutions "remains marginal and tended to result from political decisions." Governments for example choose open source because they need to develop a local industry for the IT sector, rather than for its superior fitness-for-purpose, according to the Commission.

However, developing a local IT industry is desirable, FSFE President Karsten Gerloff said Wednesday in an email.

"Does the Commission really hold the view that Europe's IT industry shouldn't be further developed? I would hope not. The Commission's own internal approach is seriously out of sync with its policy objectives," he wrote.

Moreover, the Commission also stated that existing open source alternatives have severe limitations in terms of functionalities like multilingualism and often lack proper support and service. "The lack of choice is almost total as regards the desktop operating system and productivity tools," it wrote in January, adding that mature alternatives do exist in areas such as email and social and collaborative tools.

Many governments and other public bodies use of free software for their desktop and office productivity needs, noted Gerloff.

"Anyone approaching today's software market with an open mind will find quite a lot of choice when it comes to desktop and office productivity. It seems that the Commission either did not assess the market at all, or that they had settled on a specific outcome from the start," he said, adding that the groups want to see the market analysis on which the Commission based its January statement. The document released by Andersdotter raises another serious concern, Gerloff said. "It claims that the Commission is consolidating its document management system on Microsoft Sharepoint. The document even acknowledges that this will make their lock-in worse. But the [Commission] is apparently happy to steer blindly into this abyss," he said.

The Commission should set an example for public administrations throughout Europe, the groups said.

It should make open standards its default choice for document formats, Gerloff said. "If anyone has the mass to move the needle on this issue, it's the [Commission]."

Loek is Amsterdam Correspondent and covers online privacy, intellectual property, open-source and online payment issues for the IDG News Service. Follow him on Twitter at @loekessers or email tips and comments to loek_essers@idg.com

Tags open sourceMicrosoftFree Software Foundation Europesoftwaregovernment

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