29 November 2010

Dissecting the Italian Non-Squirrel

A couple of days ago I wrote about the deal between the regional government of Puglia and Microsoft, noting that it was frustrating that we couldn't even see the terms of that deal. Well, now we can, in all its glorious officialese, and it rather confirms my worst fears.

Not, I hasten to add, because of the overall framing, which speaks of many worthy aims such as fighting social exclusion and improving the quality of life, and emphasises the importance of "technology neutrality" and "technological pluralism". It is because of how this deal will play out in practice.

That is, we need to read between the lines to find out what the fairly general statements in the agreement will actually mean. For example, when we read:

analisi congiunta delle discontinuità tecnologiche in atto e dello stato dell’arte in materia di ricerca e sviluppo informatico, sia in area desktop che nei data center (come ad es. il cloud computing e la mobilità);

[joint analysis of the technological discontinuities underway and of the state of the art in research materials and IT development, both on the desktop and in the data centre (for example, cloud computing and mobile)]

will Microsoft and representatives of the Puglia administration work together to discuss the latest developments in mobile, on the desktop, or data centres, and come to the conclusion: "you know, what would really be best for Puglia would be replacing all these expensive Microsoft Office systems by free LibreOffice; replacing handsets with low-cost Android smartphones; and adopting open stack solutions in the cloud"? Or might they just possibly decide: "let's just keep Microsoft Office on the desktop, buy a few thousands Windows Mobile 7 phones (they're so pretty!), and use Windows Azure, and Microsoft'll look after all the details"?

And when we read:

Favorire l’accesso e l’utilizzo del mondo scolastico e dei sistemi dell’istruzione alle tecnologie ed agli strumenti informatici più aggiornati

[To encourage the educational and teaching world to access and use the most up-to-date IT systems]

will this mean that teachers will explain how they need low-cost solutions that students can copy and take home so as not to disadvantage those unable to pay hundreds of Euros for desktop software, and also software that can be modified, ideally by the students themselves? And will they then realise that the only option that lets them do that is free software, which can be copied freely and examined and modified?

Or will Microsoft magnanimously "donate" hundreds of zero price-tag copies of its software to schools around the province, as it has in many other countries, to ensure that students are brought up to believe that word processing is the same as Word, and spreadsheets are always Excel. But no copying, of course, ("free as in beer" doesn't mean "free as in freedom", does it?) and no peeking inside the magic black box - but then nobody really needs to do that stuff, do they?

And when we see that:

Microsoft si impegna a:

individuare e comunicare alla Regione le iniziative e risorse (a titolo esemplificativo: personale tecnico e specialistico, eventuali strumenti software necessari alle attività da svolgere congiuntamente) che intende mettere a disposizione per sostenere la creazione del centro di competenza congiunto Microsoft-Regione;

[Microsoft undertakes to:

specify and communicate to the Region the initiatives and resources (for example: technical personnel and specialists, software necessary for the joint activities) which it intends to make available for the creation of the joint Microsoft-Regional centre of competence centre]

are we to imagine that Microsoft will diligently provide a nicely balanced selection of PCs running Windows, some Apple Macintoshes, and PCs running GNU/Linux? Will it send along specialists in open source? Will it provide examples of all the leading free software packages to be used in the joint competency centre? Or will it simply fill the place to the gunwales with Windows-based, proprietary software, and staff it with Windows engineers?

The point is the "deal" with Microsoft is simply an invitation for Microsoft to colonise everywhere it can. And to be fair, there's not much else it can do: it has little deep knowledge of free software, so it would be unreasonable to expect it to explore or promote it. But it is precisely for that reason that this agreement is completely useless; it can produce one result, and one result only: recommendations to use Microsoft products at every level, either explicitly or implicitly.

And that is not an acceptable solution because it locks out competitors like free software - despite the following protestations of support for "interoperability":

Microsoft condivide l’approccio delle politiche in materia adottato dalla Regione Puglia ed è parte attiva, a livello internazionale, per promuovere iniziative rivolte alla interoperabilità nei sistemi, indipendentemente dalle tecnologie usate.

[Microsoft shares the approach adopted by the Puglia Region, and is an active part of initiatives at an international level to promote the interoperability of systems, independently of the technology used.]

In fact, Microsoft is completely interoperable only when it is forced to be, as was the case with the European Commission:

In 2004, Neelie Kroes was appointed the European Commissioner for Competition; one of her first tasks was to oversee the fining brought onto Microsoft by the European Commission, known as the European Union Microsoft competition case. This case resulted in the requirement to release documents to aid commercial interoperability and included a €497 million fine for Microsoft.

That's clearly not an approach that will be available in all cases. The best way to guarantee full interoperability is to mandate true open standards - ones made freely available with no restrictions, just as the World Wide Web Consortium insists on for Web standards. On the desktop, for example, the only way to create a level playing-field for all is to use products based entirely on true open standards like Open Document Format (ODF).

If the Puglia region wants to realise its worthy aims, it must set up a much broader collaboration with a range of companies and non-commercial groups that represent the full spectrum of computing approaches - including Microsoft, of course. And at the heart of this strategy it must place true open standards.

Update: some good news about supporting open source and open standards has now been announced.

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