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Industry Standard

Users balk at German state's deal with Microsoft

June 14, 1999
Web posted at: 11:10 a.m. EDT (1510 GMT)

by Mary Lisbeth D'Amico

MUNICH (IDG) -- Not everyone in the German state of Northrhine Westphalia is pleased that Microsoft plans to sponsor a new electronic commerce center there.

A group of open-source software users has asked the state's governor, Wolfgang Clement, to halt a sponsorship agreement it signed with the American software giant until the government can clarify why it chose Microsoft to help sponsor the new center. The center is part of the state's program to attract media and high-technology jobs to Northrhine Westfalia.

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The group, which calls itself the Association for the Promotion of a Free Informational Infrastructure (FFII), is concerned that the contract will mean a dominance of Microsoft products at the electronic commerce center. It has sent an open letter to the governor asking him to halt the agreement until a public discussion is launched.

"Your agreement with Mr. Gates will make huge amounts of taxpayer's money flow into dubious software solutions, although better technology is available for free," said the letter, which is posted on the group's Web site.

Clement and Microsoft Chairman Bill Gates in February inked the sponsorship agreement, under which Gates agreed to help support the proposed e-commerce center in the city of Dortmund. The center will showcase products and offer e-commerce training, according to Hermann Lossau, who handles media and telecommunications for the governor's office. Lossau could give no specifics as to what shape the Microsoft support will take, however.

More than 700 IT users signed the protest letter which, so far, has gone unanswered by the governor, according to Hartmut Pilch, one of FFII's founders. The group, founded in February, is committed to promoting informational resources that have educational value, open interfaces and are open-source and freely available, according to Pilch. Members of the non-profit organization use many different systems, but the operating systems Linux and FreeBSD conform most closely to its values, Pilch said.

Open source software refers to software for which the source code is distributed freely, usually on the Internet. This model lets developers make improvements or fix bugs in the software, which can then be incorporated into the original program.

For its part, the government said that Microsoft's sponsorship of the center does not preclude involvement from other vendors.

The new e-commerce center will operate as a public-private partnership, and Microsoft has expressed interest in being one of those partners, Lossau said. "But they will by no means be alone," he said. "Linux might also be a part of it."

The state's goal in its e-commerce initiative, he said, is to support small and medium-sized businesses. "It's not the government's job to decide which software tools are appropriate," Lossau added. "The market has to decide that."

FFII has invited local government officials to discuss the topic with its members at a seminar it is sponsoring on Sunday in Cologne. The seminar is entitled "Informational Monoculture."

"The idea is to enter into a constructive dialog," said FFII's Pilch.

Government officials will likely not be able to attend the seminar, the government's Lossau said, as it coincides with the state's multimedia congress, also being held in Cologne, which takes place from Saturday, June 12 through 16.

This is not the first time this year an open-source group in Germany has raised the Microsoft alarm. In the neighboring state of Rheinland Pfalz, a group of Linux users started an initiative to make state government officials more aware of the possibilities offered by free software. That initiative sprang to life shortly after the state agreed in May to equip schools and public agencies with software from Microsoft.

The Linux users have also invited Microsoft representatives and Rheinland Pfalz government officials to attend a discussion held at their Linux seminar, taking place in Kaiserslautern, Germany on June 26 and 27.

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