Analysis: Snapshots from the OS front

Government officials the world over are getting drawn into the debate over the relative merits of using open source software rather than Microsoft Corp.'s Windows applications and other software developed by vendors who closely guard the intellectual property of their source code. Some countries, such as Germany, have decided to replace Windows and other commercial software products with open source applications. Other countries remain committed to commercial software, and yet others are straddling the fence. Here are examples of how some countries are dealing with the debate.

Nation wading in the Linux waters:


Homeland of Linux creator Linus Torvalds, Finland has embarked on a government test of open source software. Twenty-eight employees from 13 government agencies (out of 100 total) completed a project in April to test the free Open Office open-source desktop productivity suite and its commercially available version, called Star Office, from Sun Microsystems Inc. The project coordinators determined that it would recommend use of the suite, mainly for users who do not exchange documents on a regular basis with users of competing software. It cited compatibility problems, namely among users trying to receive Microsoft World documents. The government has also begun hosting seminars for employees to introduce them to Linux and other open source software. About 13 percent of government servers are running Linux, but the country has no policies that mandate what software government agencies use, according to Arja Terho, a counsellor in Finland's Ministry of Finance.


A bill currently under debate by Perú's Congress would require government agencies to use open source software. Proprietary or commercial applications, such as those from Microsoft or IBM Corp.'s Lotus Development Corp., could only be used when no open source alternative was available, the bill proposes. Proponents of the bill, which include several congressman who have introduced follow-on legislation, say it will save the country money on IT expenditures and reduce software piracy, which in 2000 accounted for about 60 percent of all the software in use at public institutions in Peru, according to the Business Software Alliance (BSA), an industry trade group. The issue has drawn opposition from critics, who say the government has no business mandating what type of software should be used, and that the law would be counterproductive for the country's indigenous developers.


Korea's HancomLinux Inc. signed a deal in January with Korea's Central Procurement Office to supply the government with 120,000 copies of its Linux desktop office productivity software, HancomOffice. The open source software, which is compatible with Microsoft's Office applications, including Word and Excel, is expected to save the government money in the long run and stimulate business for local companies competing against Microsoft in the software industry.


A government-subsidized technology development group, known as the National Electronics and Computer Technology Centre, or Nactec, announced in April that it has developed its own package of open source software for use on government desktop computers and servers. Linux-SIS (School Internet Server) for servers and Linux TLE (Thai Linux Extension) for desktops are based on the version of the Linux operating system from Red Hat Inc, a Raleigh, North Carolina, software company. Nactec has made the software freely available to government groups and small businesses. The project, government officials said, aims to narrow the gap between pirated software and legal software use, and promote local business development.


Similar to Thailand, the Philippines government has an effort to develop a package of open source software products for government agencies. The Advanced Science and Technology Institute, which falls under the Philippines' Department of Science and Technology (DOST), said in February that it will release a Linux sampler to users. It will include an operating system and desktop productivity applications on a single install disk. A separate effort by DOST led to the development of an open source database that is being used by the country's National Computer Center. So far, there are no government mandates to use Linux or other open source products.


In February 2000, the French Ministry of Culture and Communications decided to replace software on some of the government's servers, which were running Windows NT and AIX, a version of Unix from IBM Corp., with Red Hat Linux. It has already made the change on 50 of the 300 targeted servers, according to Bruno Mannoni, head of the agency's information systems. Software it has adopted include the Apache Web server and Zope, an open source application server. Mannoni said the effort has saved money and the new software is more reliable than what was used previously.


Otto Schily, the German Federal Minister of the Interior, announced last Monday a deal with IBM to promote, for the pubic sector, hardware and software products that support Linux. IBM has agreed to sell the country products at a discounted rate. IBM said that it will use the version of the operating system from SuSE Linux AG in Nürnberg, Germany. Germany's lower house of Parliament, the Bundestag, also considered a switch to Linux in October 2001, but managed to work a revised deal with Microsoft that lowered the cost of its software acquisitions.


Motivated by Taiwan's Fair Trade Commission investigation of Microsoft's pricing practices in that country, legislators are seeking ways to rein in Microsoft's dominance of the software market. Some officials advocate funding development of open-source software, including Linux. Discussions within the government are still at a preliminary stage.


Beijing government officials in January awarded local Chinese software vendors software contracts, passing over bids from Microsoft. One such deal was with Beijing-based Red Flag Software Co. Ltd. to outfit government computers with its version of Linux. Meanwhile, the Hong Kong government has installed more than 100 Linux servers in various departments in the past three years. Public pressure to avoid dependence on single-vendor products has prompted government interest in open source. According to government statistics about half of the US$23.2 million spent on software during the 2000-2001 fiscal year went to Microsoft Hong Kong Ltd. President and Chief Executive Officer of Red Flag, Liu Bo, said in January that by using open source software, the government would strengthen security, have ownership of the intellectual property that is the foundation for its technology, increase competence of local software vendors and cut down on software piracy, which in 2000 reached 97 percent, according to the BSA.

Nations with renewed support for MicrosoftMexico:

An ambitious government project to build out the country's IT infrastructure and move its 100 million citizens online passed over open source software after Microsoft agreed to pump an estimated $100 million into the effort if the country adopted its software products. Through a series of deals, the software maker is donating training for tens of thousands of teachers, technicians and professionals. The project, dubbed e-Mexico, was first introduced by the government of Vicente Fox shortly after Fox took over the presidency in December of 2000.


One of Microsoft's flagship government customers, the Federal Ministry of the Interior in Austria, is the first government body in Europe to become a member of Microsoft's Shared Source Initiative. As part of the program, the Austrian government is allowed access to the Windows XP source code. Program benefits, according to Microsoft, include better understanding of the technical underpinnings of the operating system, better protection against security vulnerabilities and a resource for writing custom applications.


Despite some efforts to investigate open source software for use in the Danish public sector, the country has maintained close ties to Microsoft, according to Niels Svennakjaer, president of Commercial Linux Association of Demark. Apparently, the country's job retraining agency, called the AMU, experimented with Linux at its offices in Copenhagen, and they like what they saw, Svennakjaer said. A switch, however, was shot down by government IT decision makers, he noted.

Playing both sides of the fence


New software subscription fees that Microsoft has imposed on its customers has fed interest among Norway's government agencies and schools in open source software. Few tests of the Linux operating system or other open source products have taken place. However, there is talk among public agencies and school officials to investigate ways it could use such software, said Fred Arne Odegaard, assistant IT consultant with Norway's Department for Trade and Industry. The country is also waiting for more direction from the European Union, which is set to present what it calls the eEurope plan later this month, which will include discussions on open source, Odegaard said. Some issues that could stand in the way of open source adoption in Norway include security and vendor-level support, he said.


An increase in licensing fees for Microsoft software pushed the U.K.'s Office of Government Commerce (OGC) into negotiations with the software maker to lower the cost of desktop software used by nearly 500,000 government employees. Microsoft agreed to new terms with the U.K, which is expected to save tax payers there a reported $150 million over three years. Still, the government is allowing individual departments to acquire open source software in place of Microsoft products, according to an OGC spokesman. Separately, the U.K. police force embarked on a study in January to test Linux for use on its 60,000 desktops used by police officers in England and Wales.

(Contributions to this report come from John Blau in Germany, Scarlet Pruitt in Boston, Peter Sayer in Paris, David Legard in Singapore, Sumner Lemon in Taipei, and IDG affiliates in Hong Kong, Thailand and the Philippines.]

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