September 27, 2004

Italy is open for penguin business

Author: Marco Fioretti

Last week saw the first Italian edition of LinuxWorld Conference & Expo. For three days the Crowne Plaza Hotel in Milan was filled with stuffed penguins and lots of people presenting and discussing Linux.

This Expo was a good occasion to check the status of the current relationship between free and open source software and Italian public administrations of any size and scope. To sum it up, it looks promising, but it's still schizophrenic. From talk to talk, visitors noted that public administrations are required by a government directive to make documents available in non-proprietary formats, and that digital signatures can be exchanged with the central administration through Linux. One hour later, however, one would learn in the next room that there is only one obstacle that prevents chambers of commerce and other regional support structures from a complete migration to Linux: Businesses and private citizens are required to send lots of forms to many public central offices, and quite often, such documents can be generated only with Windows executables, released by the administration two or three days before the deadline. Of course, not all of them even work on the same version of Windows or Microsoft Office.

This confusion damages everybody. There are still too many government offices that can produce their own directives or software applications without any control by or interaction or coordination with the others. The first thing needed to play on a level field, without wasting time and money, is clear laws and governments directives. The criteria for design and acceptance of any software in any public administration must be defined without ambiguities and conflicts. This has been requested by nobody less than Microsoft, during the discussion on open standards between Senator Fiorello Cortiana and Pier Luigi Dal Pino, responsible for government relationships of Microsoft Italy.

Listening to the experiences of several system administrators that have migrated their users to GNU/Linux desktops, I confirmed that the so-called costs of migration to OpenOffice.org and/or penguin-based systems are often overrated or different from what is usually said, at least in the Italian (and others, I'd suspect) public administrations. Many employees have been moved directly from 3270 terminals to Mandrake or SUSE desktops; if and when training was needed, it was to use the GUI, any GUI, and not to switch from proprietary ones. Other departments have just replaced old Pentium boxes running Microsoft Office 97 with P4 computers running OpenOffice.org, without telling anybody. Re-training and support were actually needed only for those very few users who were running huge spreadsheets or Microsoft Access databases.
  
The exhibit area hosted big and small companies side by side. The central area and its wider stands were predictably occupied by the Italian branches of the usual big players: in alphabetical order, Dell, HP, IBM, Novell, Red Hat, SGI, and Sun. They were surrounded by a
varied and interesting bunch of Italian small and medium businesses using Linux in different ways, including commercially supported localized distributions, firewall and server appliances, surveillance systems, accounting software, and turnkey hardware and software installations for school LANs. There really was something for everybody. There were even three or four Italian Linux magazines.

The first thing that caught the eyes of attendees was the presence in the hall of some alien
creatures. Imagine a cyborg that looks like a human being with a vacuum cleaner soldered on his back. A quick second look showed that the vacuum was actually an harmless DVD player backpack, complete of speakers and, on top of a one-meter pole, an LCD screen advertising the Looking Glass interface and the Java Desktop System from Sun Microsystems. I was finally been able to see and try Looking Glass. It looks darn cool, even if the fonts were certainly not the best I've seen on *nix. Moving windows in all directions and angles is a lot of fun.  I'm uncertain what the real advantage of the software is, at least until they make 3D mice and 3D-enabled applications, but it is cool.

Two differences between the Italian expo and the parent show in USA were probably the presence of smokers in the hall here and the absence of people surfing the Net via Wi-Fi from their laptops. Among the attendees, mature business people in formal suits predominated over younger geeks. The Linux community was given a corner in the basement, in a room called the .org Pavilion. This was probably because the event was explicitly organized with a professional
focus. Now, even in Italy, it is very clear that Linux and the whole free and open source
movements are not some weird kids' hobby anymore. There is serious money to be saved or made through it, and lawmakers have even more important reasons than money to support them. This is hardly news, and the Italian 2004 Expo is far from being the first local event where this has been said, but is probably the first of such relevance here.

Personally (shameless plug for non-profit project ahead!) I presented the current status of the RULE Project, now beta testing the slinky installer for Fedora Core 2. I have also met the folks of Progetto Lazzaro, who may use RULE in the future in their business based on recycled computers for schools. My presentation, together with all the others made at the show, should be available on the Expo Web site in a few days.

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