by Julio Godoy
(IPS) PARIS -- Many European public administrations are distancing themselves from the U.S. software giant Microsoft and turning to free software.
The Paris city administration has announced it is considering replacing its Microsoft systems with public domain software such as Linux, OpenOffice and Mozilla.
The overhaul of the city's data processing systems would entail acquiring some 15,000 new computers with the new software by 2008.
Microsoft said in January the change would cost Paris 15 million dollars, and offered a 60 percent discount on its own systems. That reduction would bring costs down to less than seven million dollars, it claimed.
Joachim Larisch, administrative director at the university of Bremen in northern Germany says free software is better suited to government needs. "By its mere conception, Linux can be adapted freely by users, without having to solicit permission from private software producers," he said.
Linux is a competitor to Microsoft Windows. OpenOffice, a free system for data processing, competes with Microsoft Office, and Mozilla, an Internet browser, is challenging Microsoft Explorer.
"Besides being free of charge, Linux and OpenOffice can be easily adapted to an administration's needs," Larisch said. "And the Internet browser Mozilla doesn't suffer the numerous safety gaps of Microsoft Explorer, which are very dangerous for a public administration."
In addition, he said, Linux users are not compelled to use software associated with it, as with Microsoft.
Use of free software has become a central issue in strategies to eradicate the digital divide, the growing technological and commercial gap separating the industrialised rich from the poor countries.
In discussions at the World Summit on the Information Society (WSIS) held in Geneva in December last year, representatives of non-governmental organisations and from the poorest countries emphasised the need to support free software to promote wider access to information and communication technologies.
Several NGOs and representatives of governments from the South tried at the meeting to promote free software. But the U.S. government resisted such efforts.
"Part of the digital divide comes from artificial obstacles to the sharing of information," Richard Stallman, founder of a project to promote free software told IPS. "At Geneva the Brazilian government sought measures to promote free software, but the U.S. government was firmly against it."
Stallman, a U.S. citizen, said that President George W. Bush had received substantial financial contributions from Microsoft for his election campaign.
National sovereignty is yet another argument for removing Microsoft from public administration, leading software experts say.
"If a public office changes from Microsoft to Linux and other similar software, it breaks dependence on a private foreign corporation," says Bernard Benhamou, analyst at the French Agency for the Development of Electronic Administration.
"Of course, there are economic advantages in such a change," Benhamou told IPS. "But the question of sovereignty is central to a topic of the strategic importance of electronic data processing."
If Paris were to replace Microsoft programs with Linux, Mozilla, and other open-source software, it would follow the example set in May last year by the German city Munich when its Social Democrat mayor Christian Ude discarded Microsoft systems for free software.
Munich became the first major city administration to switch to free software. With more than a million inhabitants it is the third largest city in Germany.
Fearing a snowball effect from Munich, Microsoft chief executive officer Steve Ballmer had personally tried to persuade the city administration to keep using Microsoft systems.
Ballmer has more reasons to worry. Late last month the municipality of the Norwegian city Bergen followed Munich's example.
In Paris official sources say the municipality is waiting for further price reductions from Microsoft. "We are sure that Microsoft fears losing us," an official told IPS. "And we are also sure that it is ready to pay dearly to prevent this loss."
Microsoft's highest executive in France Christophe Aulnette refused to comment on the city government's expectations. But he said Microsoft hoped governments "would avoid taking ideological decisions, and base them only on the efficacy of a system."
Munich's example is likely to be followed by other public administrations. Two weeks ago French minister for public services Renaud Dutreil urged all state administrations to consider discarding Microsoft.
"Microsoft should be considered a normal supplier, and not a unique provider of software," Dutreil said in a public statement. "Free software has become a credible alternative, both in terms of price and functionality."
Until recently public administration has been a protected domain for Microsoft systems. Government services and institutions around the world have been using Microsoft systems.
But this is changing rapidly, especially in universities and at research and education centers.
Jacques Le Marois, French founder of Mandrakesoft, the software manufacturer distributing Linux in France, says Dutreil's declaration "is a political signal of enormous importance, and should have a strong impact upon the state administrations' choices."
Microsoft is facing other challenges in Europe. In March the European Commission (EC) fined the company $600 million for "abuse of a commercially dominant position."
The EC gave Microsoft notice to offer clients a new Windows system that does not force them to use MediaPlayer, the Microsoft program that gives access to sound and video files on the Internet.
The EC said forced use of MediaPlayer meant illegal competition to other software systems such as Realworks.
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