November 19, 2004

Linux makes first appearance at Italy's PC Professionale Conference

Author: Marco Fioretti

WPC is one of the most important IT conferences in Italy, as it focuses on bringing to Italian developers the latest information on the future of IT from a Microsoft Windows-centric point of view. The 2004 edition was held in Milan last week, and for the first time in the history of this event, the sponsors held a second conference during the first three days in the same place: the PC Professionale Conference.

Through this second conference, GNU/Linux and free and open source software (FOSS) in general reached an audience that was accustomed to very different solutions for their computing needs.

I was invited to give two talks on FOSS topics at the conference. In the first, I discussed whether and how Linux and Windows could live together and, above all, why they should. I presented several ways to achieve this result, with their pros and cons: sharing services like email or printing, mixing desktops and applications with Wine, VNC, or VMware, or just going for cross-platform applications. I then explained how this last approach is the one with the greatest potential, because it is the fastest and easiest way to switch for good to open file formats like the OASIS format for office applications, which is the default file format in the upcoming OpenOffice 2.0. I concluded that everybody should be left free to decide if, how, and when to switch to GNU/Linux -- provided that he or she switches as soon as possible to open file formats.

I pointed out how open file formats would also be in the best interests of those users who do not want to leave Windows. Having all their content fully and immediately accessible by other applications would give them much more leverage to negotiate with Microsoft.

During the session I was asked about two unexpected, yet promising topics: how to handle unified accounts in mixed Windows and GNU/Linux networks, and the best way to port commercial database applications to Tux. I hope this indicates that Italian companies and proprietary software developers are seriously considering alternatives to Microsoft.

My second talk was on a more local issue: how free (as in freedom, of course) software can help Italian schools to teach better and save money. The latest national school reform mandates that basic computer skills be learned since primary school, but (surprise, surprise) funds for equipment and teacher training are still, shall we say, below expectations. I therefore presented the more useful applications for this scenario (OO.o, Firefox, the GIMP) as well as several success stories of Italian high schools already using GNU/Linux in several ways. Again I insisted on cross-platform FOSS applications and free file formats. Schools must not encourage software piracy, even if "only" by ignoring or tolerating it. The logical consequence is that the only way to minimize the cultural shock for teachers and avoid homework done with illegally copied programs is to hand out the assignment in OpenOffice/OASIS format and expect the same in return!

Another speaker, Mario Zucca, discussed open source and .Net, comparing features and performances of the several alternatives available in this area, obviously mentioning Mono. I couldn't attend this session, but I'm told that eventually the slides of all the presentations will be placed online and made available on the home page of the conference -- in Italian.

Apart from FOSS, there were a lot of interesting talks. Some were technology previews of several Microsoft products, from Visual Studio 2005 to Exchange 2003, and, of course, Longhorn. Windows Media Center was presented as "the evolution of the PC." In the main hall one could also see in action some cool Italian hybrids between home theater and computers which would look great in the trendiest living rooms. I plan to find out if they can be also purchased without Windows and its relative extra cost.

Hardware fanatics had their share of fun in lots of sessions and stands: overclocking, modding, 3G telephony, wireless networking, you name it. The next generation of CPUs from AMD and Intel and graphics cards from nVidia and ATI were also presented in detail.

Had you still needed it, you could have also received another proof that globalization and the like are truly global issues. I couldn't believe it, but there was one session explaining how to "configure Active Directory in merger, acquisition, and outsourcing scenarios," including the scenarios for both planned changes and unplanned: those days when your first email message
says, "We've been acquired by Acme Inc. Their network SWAT team will be here Monday to hook up those of us who will remain to their network. As the resident sysadmin, you should help them."

What about the non technical side? A great all-you-can-eat buffet, hefty discounts on all IT magazines and books published by Mondadori, and, in general, good logistics. All registered attendees could surf the Internet for free, by Wi-Fi with their laptops or using one of the computer provided by the sponsors. At a first glance, the audience was exactly the one you could expect to see at any IT conference around the world, but I couldn't help to notice that the audience was almost exclusively male. I've seen a higher percentage of female visitors and speakers at Linux-only events.

Last week's two simultaneous Microsoft-oriented conferences in Milan (where there had been only one in the last 10 years) helped uncover the potential of FOSS software. For Italian FOSS supporters, being tested by professional users with very different needs, attitude, and backgrounds is another challenge for real growth: unavoidable, not easy, but certainly beneficial in the long term.

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