Remix project makes limited desktop headway

Lack of implementation strategy slows open desktop efforts

New Zealand has a good record of government-led changes to increase competition — our telecommunications and electricity industries, for example — but government agencies seem unwilling to combat the incumbent on the PC desktop, says New Zealand Open Source Society president Don Christie.

Christie drew attention to the issue in a session on “Changing the NZ Desktop Stack to FLOSS [Free Linux Open Source Software]" at the linux.conf.au open source conference in Wellington last month.

The NZOSS launched a project last year known as Remix, to encourage migration from Windows to Linux on government desktops. Part of the challenge in dislodging Microsoft from its dominance on government agency desktops is simple aversion to change and the power and familiarity of Microsoft. But the effort to encourage open source is not helped by the lack of a support resource for agencies, Christie says.

While government has a policy emphasising freedom of choice in systems software “there is a lack of implementation strategy. It’s never been anyone’s job to look at the operating systems on public-sector desktops,” he says.

In contrast, the Malaysian government’s Administrative Modernisation and Management Planning Unit (MAMPU) set up an open source competency centre http://www.oscc.org.my in 2004 to provide such help. Governments such as the Netherlands and Denmark have also been positively encouraging.

In New Zealand last year, following the collapse of the government’s G2009 negotiations with Microsoft for its accustomed three-year licence deal, the NZOSS wrote to all government agencies promoting open source software as an alternative. It has had interest from 14 agencies and three, NZ Post, the Department of Prime Minister and Cabinet and the Horizons Regional Council (covering the mid-North Island) are reaching the stage of pilot projects.

The effort is still “nascent”, Christie says and less advanced than NZOSS would like. Part of the problem is the Society’s own lack of resources, but most of it is due to the simple power of the incumbent, he says.

“We are working against people who have enormous access to politicians and peer pressure is strong.”

As an example of Microsoft’s unique influence with PC makers here, you still cannot buy a Dell PC with Linux installed in New Zealand, Christie says. You can in almost every other country where Dell operates. There are arrangements for Microsoft to assist the hardware makers with marketing and these create a tight bond between them, Christie says.

Dell did not immediately reply to a call seeking confirmation that it still does not provide Linux systems here.

The desktop is the key to control of an organisation’s computing, he says; one argument against open source is that the PC often has to interface to a variety of backend systems. Windows, agency CIOs argue, is the only system that can reliably interface in this way.

Typical desktop needs are not complex, Christie points out – email, document preparation, spreadsheet preparation and web-browsing cover most of it and open-source alternatives are available for all these functions and a wide variety of more specialist tasks.

The NZOSS has conducted a survey of vendor companies of all sizes, with the help of Victoria University establishing that there are open source software and services available locally to handle a wide range of functions.

When adherence to Microsoft is more closely examined, Christie says, “the benefits are limited and the downside very apparent” in terms of lock-in. Choice and freedom have been removed, he says.

“But you don’t go to a CIO and tell them they’ve lost control of their IT department; you’ll be shown the door very quickly. You need to set up a project that they feel safe in and willing to experiment,” he says.

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