EU's Anti-Open Source Approach to Procurement

In recent posts, I've looked at the increasing use of open source software by governments in countries as diverse as China, Russia, India and Germany. Here I want to contrast those moves with the continuing failure of the European Commission to...

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In recent posts, I’ve looked at the increasing use of open source software by governments in countries as diverse as China, Russia, India and Germany. Here I want to contrast those moves with the continuing failure of the European Commission to embrace free software – with huge costs for European citizens as a result, to say nothing of lost sovereignty.

The Free Software Foundation Europe has just put out an excellent post on this topic:

The European Commission has recently renewed its commitment to a proprietary desktop and secret file formats. The Commission is refusing to get serious about breaking free from vendor lock-in, and is ignoring all available alternatives. In doing so, the EU’s civil service fails to practice what it preaches.

In April, the Commission signed two contracts with Microsoft: An agreement for “high-level services” worth 44 million Euro, and a framework agreement on software licensing conditions. The actual licenses are provided by Hewlett-Packard under a separate contract from 2012, worth 50 million euro. The contracts cover the Commission itself, and 54 other EU organisations.

It’s well-worth reading the whole thing, but the really important nugget is found in the following paragraph:

In a strategy paper which the Commission released in response to official questions from MEP Andersdotter, the EC lays out a three-track approach for its office automation platform for the coming years. This strategy will only deepen the Commission’s reliance on secret, proprietary file formats and programs.

That strategy paper [.pdf] is one of the sorriest EU documents it has been my misfortune to read recently, and shows just how parlous is the state of the European Commission’s software procurement. How’s this for an admission?

The current contracts for the Commission’s office automation environment expire in May 2014. The procedure to procure future office automation solutions now needs to be launched rapidly. The Commission is in a situation of effective captivity with Microsoft as regards its desktop operation system and office productivity tools (word processing and spread sheets, etc.).

Go that? The mighty European Commission “is in a situation of effective captivity with Microsoft” - how pathetic can you get? Worse, rather than seek a way out, it seems to think it has no option but to love its chains. Here’s a particularly myopic summary of the state of free software alternatives to expensive, closed-source code:

the current captivity situation as regards desktop operating systems and productivity tools is not new or limited to the Commission. The vast majority (98%) of public bodies are in a similar situation. For example, the UK government holds a Memorandum of Understanding with Microsoft guaranteeing preferential prices to government agencies in the procurement of desktop solutions. The use and development of Open Source solutions in these core areas has been slow, adoption of such solutions remains marginal and tended to result from political decisions (eg. the need to develop a local industry for IT services) rather than superior fitness-for-purpose. Those that do exist have severe limitations both in terms of functionalities (eg. multilingualism) and as regards (the lack of) support and service. The same could be said of other niche market solutions.

As you can see, that recycles just about every tired old cliché about free software – limited functionality, lack of support etc. The claim about lack of multilingualism is particularly rich, since this is an area where Microsoft has always lagged behind open source – 15 years ago, it famously refused to produce an Icelandic version of Windows “due to size of the market”.

The so-called “strategy paper” goes on:

It should also be noted that the provisioning of significant proportion of the “stack” from one manufacturer offers certain advantages in terms of cost, functionality, interoperability and coherence, that levels of user satisfaction with the functional solutions currently provided are high, and that the procurement procedure covers the needs of all EU institutions.

Nonsense: the cost of free software is self-evidently lower, even allowing for equivalent support costs. Functionality is as good, if not better, as anyone who has tried out both properly knows; interoperability is a joke, since Microsoft uses non-open formats (incompatible versions of OOXML are just one reason why it is almost impossible to create open-source implementations.) And are we really expected to believe that user satisfaction levels with slow performance, constant crashes and virus infections are high? Or it is simply that they don’t know that alternatives exist because of the Commission’s failed IT policy?

Indeed the document goes on to reveal what looks like the real reason the European Commission refuses to shift to better and cheaper solutions:

In reality, the combination of (i) the effective non-availability of viable alternative products at the bottom end of the “stack”, (ii) the need to ensure business continuity and respect some specificities of the EU environment (eg. multilingual support), and (iii) the sunk cost investments – both hard (including the interconnections with underlying information systems eg. reliance on Excel files, etc.) and software (eg. investments made in training) - make an immediate switch away from the current desktop environment effectively impossible.

Since it is not true that there are no other viable alternative products at the “bottom end of the stack”, and since multilingual support is also not an issue, this argument comes down to “sunk cost” - basically, the European Commission has wasted so many billions of our Euros that it cannot contemplate admitting that it was a bad deal and moving on to a better one. Instead, it tries to argue that it is trapped, and must simply carry on paying through the nose for inferior products.

This is, of course, an utter disgrace. All it takes is someone with common sense and uncommon backbone to step back, look at how absurd this argument is, and order a move to open source throughout the Commission. That will save huge amounts of money in the long term. And as for the inevitable short-term costs of moving, these should be laid at the door of Microsoft as exit costs, and another reason why it was an awful idea to choose “captivity” - to use the European Commission’s own term – in the first place.

Sadly, the important documents obtained by Amelia Andersdotter (whose initiative and intelligence will be sadly missed in the European Parliament, since she was not re-elected to the new session) indicate that the European Commission not only has no intention of trying to escape from that captivity, but even goes so far as to belittle open source, when it should be embracing it with gratitude as a way of achieving executive freedom, saving public money and boosting the European economy. But once again, the European Commission shows itself arrogant, ignorant, and incompetent to the point of self-parody.

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