The State of the European Union

With the demolition of internal frontiers, the development of an open market and a common currency, Europe is emerging from conflict to become a great place to conduct business. And as Europe's economy grows, so does Linux. Here's the state of Linux in the European Union.

For over forty years, Europe wasn’t Europe. It was a great divide. Ever since the end of World War II, the East/West, capitalist/communist dichotomy stood like the Berlin Wall, blocking true economical advancement. While some western (European) nations prospered and some eastern (European) nations put men into orbit, even Germany, allegedly the most powerful nation in Europe, was divided in two, severing the prosperous western half from at least fifty percent of its potential workforce, natural resources, and home market.

Arguably, it’s true that Europe has never been very united. For centuries, political, cultural, and linguistic boundaries, along with entrenched prejudices against neighboring states have kept Europeans from presenting a common front, leading to no shortage of conflicts.

But Europeans are pulling themselves together. With a unified currency, the Euro, the abolition of many national frontiers and a real open common market, European governments, for the first time in history, are looking beyond their own national interests and are pondering policies on a continental scale. Furthermore, eastern bloc nations, such as Poland, Hungary, and Bulgaria, having left communism well behind, are lined up to join the European Union or have already been admitted as members. The marriage between east and west under common political and economical policies stands to finally bridge the gap.

However, Europe still has many hurdles to clear. There are chasms between the economies of European Union member countries, making for at least three Europes striving to become one. First there is the Europe of traditionally rich, industrialized countries, such as Germany, France, Denmark, and the United Kingdom. Second, there are those states that, although thriving, still haven’t reached the wealth of the aforementioned countries, because the Industrial Revolution passed them by. Spain and Greece are cases in point. And finally, there are those ex-eastern bloc nations that have long been impoverished by misguided economical policies enforced by former communist regimes. These three “classes” of countries turns Europe into a federation of countries in search of the keys to establishing true economical unity within its boundaries.

But for the unity of the EU’s IT industry, the key is already in the lock: the key is Open Source software.

Open Source Software in Europe

The abolition of national frontiers within the European Union (EU) allows free trade among member countries. Currently, ten states — Belgium, France, Germany, Luxembourg, the Netherlands, Italy, Spain, Portugal, and Greece — out of the fifteen full members of the EU, have completely eliminated all barriers for free transit of goods and citizens, opening up a market of nearly 300 million consumers. Other members or members-to-be encounter very few impediments compared to the red tape of yore.

Even for the battered IT industry, this is good news. Free software developers can trade their wares in any country of the EU without restrictions. Major players such as SuSE (Germany), MySQL (Sweden), and TrollTech (Norway) can place their products on shop shelves in any country of the union with the same ease as in their home countries. Even upstart companies, such as Aurox (a new Linux distribution from Poland, a country that’s not a full EU member yet), have reached as south as Spain, something once unthinkable in pre-EU Europe. The lack of intracontinental restrictions is building a healthy competitive market where a quality product is not hindered by restrictive exportations taxes or protective policies.

Now, whether that market is exploding is hard to say. Few statistics exist that allow for an evaluation of the true penetration of Linux in the European market. However, according to an IDC study, the number of Linux servers to be deployed in Europe will triple from the 162,000 currently running to over half a million by 2007. That growth means the value of the market will go from its current $621 million (USD) to a whopping $1.9 billion (USD) over the same period.

Unfortunately, Linux’s impact on the desktop is virtually impossible to evaluate. Linux is obtained from a variety of sources (downloads, cover CDs on magazines, sharing), and there isn’t one single company controlling the distributions or distribution channels. But one thing seems plain from a careful look at the market: Linux has achieved a higher profile in Europe over the past two or three years.

For instance, in 1997, it was impossible to find Spanish-language books that delved into the intricacies of Linux. Today, all major technical publishers have a GNU/Linux line of books, and bookshops are not complete without a shelf dedicated to Open Source.

Linux products proper have also wheedled there way to shop shelves: the Spanish branch of the online book-cum-department store FNAC (http://www.fnac.es) displays SuSE Linux Desktop at the top of its operating system section, higher up than Windows XP.

Of course, Open Source penetration on the desktop is not limited to just Linux. The number of hits at the European language download pages at OpenOffice.org (including German, Danish, Italian, and Spanish) are nearing two million, a definite sign that the Open Source office productivity package is taking off in Europe.

There are other reasons to believe that Open Source is making headway in the race to conquer the desktop in Europe: apart from unbeatable prices and high quality, European distributions such as SuSE and Mandrake pride themselves as being the most user friendly operating system this side of Lindows. The processes of partitioning, installing, and updating are as easy — often easier — than with Windows. The quality of the translations — an extremely important feature for any distribution that wants to make good in Europe — is also very high.

Aurox, for example, offers its system in five languages: Polish (of course), Czech, German, Spanish, and French. English is also provided, because Aurox is an adaptation of a Red Hat distribution. However, Aurox is clearly aiming its product at non-English-speaking Europe.

Civil Service Tux

While evaluating the impact Linux is having on European home and corporate desktops is difficult, knowing what’s happening at official European institutions isn’t. To know which state, regional, or local government is going to deploy Linux next, you just have to watch where Steve Ballmer turns up.

The last time Ballmer surfaced in Europe, it was in Germany. Munich put Linux and other Open Source software on trial for months and despite the fact that Ballmer interrupted his Swiss skiing vacation to go and negotiate with the heads of the municipality personally, as of last May, Linux is in and Windows is out in the capital of the state of Bavaria. Ballmer went so far as offering advantageous licensing schemes and other benefits equivalent to a 90 percent discount on Microsoft products, but the officials in charge still said no. Soon, over 14,000 computers, from servers to desktops currently running different versions of Windows, will all be running Linux.

Laura Didio, senior analyst at the Yankee Group, attributes this turn towards Open Source software partially to “a visceral anti-Microsoft sentiment” that runs through Europe. Richard Seibt, CEO of SuSE Linux A.G., thinks otherwise: “The city clearly sees Linux not just as saving money over costly, proprietary software, but also as the best tool for the job, bringing security, stability, flexibility, and privacy not available before.”

Indeed, Munich is not the only town hall considering the switch. As many as nine other cities in the state of Rheinland Pfalz are currently evaluating Open Source solutions. By the time you read this, probably many more will have joined the club.

But the revolution isn’t contained to just Germany. In Spain, the Agencia Tributaria, an agency for tax collection that depends on the Ministry of the Economy, have had IBM fit Linux servers throughout their intranet. Big Blue is also aiding the British government in an investigation of wider uses for Open Source software all across the public sector. Nine “proof of pilots” are being run to “measure the effectiveness and cost-benefits of IT systems based on Open Source software products, when compared against proprietary software solutions,” according to a press release dated 9 October 2003. The trials are being run in such high profile departments as the Office of the Deputy Prime Minister, the Department for Work and Pensions, and the Department for Culture, Media, and Sport.

In Denmark, the Danish Board of Technology, a government-dependent working group, issued a study in October 2002 in which the group recommends a move away from exclusive proprietary solutions and towards diverse, open, standards-based ones, including Linux and OpenOffice. And the Russian Ministry of Communications and Computerization, jointly with IBM again, have recently opened a Linux Competency Centre, mimicking similar centers set up in New York and other American cities. The Centre will provide information and showcases of Linux and Open Source to Russian government agencies and businesses.

Going to Extremes in Extremadura

But all these moves seem pretty lukewarm when compared with the bold approach taken by one of the humblest regions in Europe in an attempt to improve its IT lot. Extremadura, in the southeast of Spain, is one of the poorest regions in that country. The local economy is mostly based on agriculture, and unemployment is high, but Extremadura has its own Linux distribution.

When the engineers at the Junta (the local government of Extremadura) looked at alternatives to proprietary solutions, what they came up with was LinEx, a Linux distribution based on Debian that was to be deployed in government institutions, schools, local companies, and homes. In April 2002, the first 10,000 computers were converted to LinEx. That effort earned itself a feature in The Washington Post. Since then, more than 100,000 computers have been switched to Linux, and despite a few early technical hiccups, things have gone mostly smoothly. Most of the regional computers deployed in official institutions and town halls run LinEx, and the Junta has reinvested what it’s saved in software licences in hardware, making Extremadura the Spanish region with the highest number of computers per student — 15 students per machine, as compared to an average of 33 students per machine in the rest of Spain. Moreover, most computer retailers in the region now offer machines with LinEx preloaded, allowing them to sell computers more cheaply, while boosting their margins.

And the Junta, apart from bundling OpenOffice in its distro, has commissioned a series of applications that can be deployed freely (free, as in beer and free, as in speech) in companies as alternatives to proprietary solutions. This is a remarkably coherent plan: after all, it’s pointless to promote an operating system for which there are no tools. The first two applications, contalinex, an application for business accounts, and factulinex, an invoicing program, are available for download at the LinEx web site at http://www.linex.org as .deb packages.

The success of LinEx has had a resounding impact beyond the borders of Extremadura, too. Several other Spanish regional governments, such as Andalusia and Valencia, have turned to Extremadura to help them shift from proprietary to open source software. And when the results of those efforts were presented to the European Commission, they were deemed a model to be followed. The European Interchange of Data between Administrations (IDA) cites LinEx as one of the most successful case studies in Europe.

Documenting the Switch

Certainly, Extremadura’s policies are bold. While effective for the Junta, other governments and agencies may want to proceed more slowly and cautiously. For those institutions, the IDA’s Open Source Migration Guidelines book can help. The 148-page document is packed with advice for IT managers working at official institutions to help them wean users off proprietary solutions and onto OSS ones.

The book (which can be downloaded from http://europa.eu.int/ISPO/ida) gives such sound advice as getting users to use OpenOffice instead of other proprietary solutions, so that when those same users are faced with the Linux desktop, at least their office suite will be familiar. The document also contains sections that discuss human reactions against the switch and describe how to deal with them with headings such as “Fear of the Unknown,” “The CV Dilution Effect,” and “Knowledge is Power.” The book also describes in painstaking detail specific Open Source applications — mainly desktop applications — and how they should be deployed in a work environment.

Another IDA document, Pooling Open Source Software, released in June 2002, suggests that all software developed by or for all official European institutions should be Open Source or be open sourced to promote cooperation between administrations of different member countries. The study concludes that Open Source licenses should be applied to all software used officially in the EU, since “the pan-European re-use of public sector software will require code adaptations to specific needs and re-distribution to new users. These two characteristics are common to open source software.” It seems that in spite of SCO, GPL-like licences may come in handy after all. Interestingly, the pooling policies are not restricted to just software: the document also encourages sharing of knowledge and competences.

Potholes Ahead

The amount of time, money and resources the EU government is pouring into researching Open Source software makes it difficult to believe that nothing will come of it. Reports and research papers issued by official European organizations cover every possible aspect of Open Source software, ranging from economic impact, through deployment guides, to even detailed portrayals of your average Open Source developer. (One of the most revealing conclusions drawn by the report is that 71% of open source developers in the survey live in the EU. This may partly explain why Europe is so willing to embrace Open Source.)

Yet despite having a healthy number of supporters, the road to Open Source software in Europe is not devoid of potholes. A bittersweet victory over software patenting was won in September 2003 when the European Parliament amended a law that would have played the European software market into the hands of such patent-mongering companies as IBM, Sun, and Microsoft, and would have had a serious detrimental effect on local small- and medium-sized companies and private developers. The initial draft, dubbed The McCarthy Report, unleashed a wave of protest throughout the continent, as users and organizations closed their web sites, organized online petitions, and bombarded some members of European Parliament with emails (and others with cream pies, as is traditional in any noteworthy European protest). Developers, small businesses, and economists alike unanimously rejected the directive, pointing out that it was poison for the European software industry.

The resolution was finally passed, but with many amendments that guarantee free competition and free development within Europe. The victory was sweet because the resolution had its teeth pulled, bitter because the European Parliament considered it a good idea and because the battle isn’t over yet by any means. The United Kingdom patents office, for example, is lobbying for unlimited patentability, much in the style of US patents, and as of this writing, patent lobbyists are still trying to negotiate amendments that would raise all restrictions on software patents.

And then, of course, is the SCO-IBM-Linux botheration, which, until completely resolved, will hinder Linux adoption to a certain degree throughout the world, including Europe. But, meanwhile, in May 2003, LinuxTag, a German Linux association, filed a “post proof or shut up” style injunction in a German court of law. The court ruled that if SCO couldn’t substantiate its claims of IP ownership over code in the Linux kernel with hard evidence by the end of the month, they would have to retract. SCO promptly shut up, at least in Germany, and withdrew all references to their claims from their German web site.

On the upside, the antitrust proceedings against Microsoft may have been settled in the United States, but in Europe, Redmond still has an appointment with European courts. However, because European justice is probably limited — a result of limited jurisdiction over United States companies — the EU is striving to do “it’s own thing” and is investing much in the search for alternatives. Ultimately, this could hurt Microsoft more than any court ruling — an outcome that Microsoft is well-aware of. Microsoft is quick to dispatch key figures of the company, such as Steve Ballmer, to try to quell any “rebellion” against their products.

Akin to Ballmer’s visit to Munich was the meeting between Rosa Garcìa, General Manager of Microsoft Spain and Luis Millan Vazquez de Miguel, minister of education, science, and technology of Extremadura and LinEx’s most staunch supporter. When Garcìa didn’t manage to convince the local government to backtrack, there were rumors that Microsoft was planning to sue Extremadura for some breach of contract or other. Fortunately, it seems that Redmond has wisely decided to drop the issue.

Europe May Lead Once Again

As Open Source software becomes mainstream within the European Union, companies in the less than prosperous countries will be able to develop and deploy software that lets them compete with the EU “Big Boys,” bringing a much needed competitive equality within the common market. Will this reduce the market down to a lowest common denominator, making IT products too cheap to sustain companies that need to make a profit? Probably not. High-profile customers will still require the support and customer service that only well-established companies can provide.

But where Open Source will make most of a difference is within the European administration. Although it’s unlikely that every single machine in the institutions of the European community will be converted to GNU/Linux and Open Source at every single level, pro-Linux policies and widespread adoption of Linux within European civil services prove that Linux in Europe isn’t going away any time soon.

European Euro-piracy

The fall of communist regimes in Europe hasn’t led to a peaceful transition to a capitalist market system. Instead, generalized political corruption and organized and petty crime have followed in the wake of the fall of socialist father figures.

In the balmy south of Europe, in Italy, Spain, Greece, and Turkey, people are easy-going. Politicians are perceived as only slightly better than their ex-communist counterparts; copyright laws, until recently, have been lax; and whatever isn’t nailed to the floor at night time is there for the taking. The causes may be different, but the effect for the IT industry is the same: uncontrolled piracy.

In eastern Europe, pirates eke out a living by illegally copying and reselling proprietary software on the black market. In the south, the popular perception is that software should be free (as in beer), the same way as TV programs are free: you’re only required to pay for the TV set. Hence, it isn’t surprising that one of the main objectives of LinEx, the all-Linux project in Extremadura, apart from curbing expenditure, was curbing piracy. Whether the solution satisfies the providers of proprietary software remains to be seen.

The problem in eastern bloc countries is slightly more thorny. Commenting on Microsoft’s anti-piracy policies in eastern Europe, Christopher Deliso, business correspondent for United Press International, said, “Microsoft is wasting its time if it thinks it can coax Balkan residents to start buying licensed software,” implying that the population will go from what they’ve considered free software, to free software, albeit of another breed, before they are forced to part with their hard-earned, meager salaries.

Oddly, the poorest countries in Europe — those with the highest piracy rates — also have the lowest Linux-penetration rates. According to the Business Software Alliance (http://www.bsa.org), at least sixty percent of all software used in Greece is illegal. When examining ex-Soviet Union countries, the figures shoot to a staggering 87 percent for both Russia and Ukraine, giving these countries the dubious honor of being among the top ten most piracy-ridden countries.

Piracy prevents the growth of Linux, and politicians easily wooed by generous “donations” from proprietary software companies — such as the recent agreement signed by Microsoft and the Macedonian government — don’t help either.

Paul C. Brown is the Editor-in-Chief of Linux Magazine Spain, a writer for several other Spanish computer magazines and the author of alt.*: La Selva de Los Grupos de Noticias, a guide to Usenet in Spanish. E-mail Paul at asbestos@mundofree.com.

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