'Proprietary formats obstruct…

'Proprietary formats obstructed Ostrava-Jih's open source desktop'


Lack of document interoperability caused the failure of the open source desktop at the Czech city district of Ostrava-Jih', says Aleš Kapica a researcher at the Czech Technical University, Faculty of Electrical Engineering. Members of the city council in the past decade became locked-in by a proprietary document format, increasingly causing friction with other civil servants in the city district. This led to the city to abandon its open source IT strategy in 2009.

Moving to a proprietary desktop system caused the IT costs to increase with some 30 percent, says Kapica, who previously worked as an IT administrator at the city district.

Kapica was one of the presenters at a workshop in the city of Prague, this Monday. The workshop was organised by Osepa, a project to increase awareness on the advantages of free and open source software, funded in part by the European Regional Development Fund.

Ostrava-Jih (Ostrava-South) is one of the 23 districts of Ostrava, the third largest city in the Czech Republic, ranked by number of inhabitants. About a third of all of the citizens of Ostrava lives in the Ostrava-Jih district, making it one of the largest self-governing units in the Czech Republic.

The city's IT department in 2002 and 2003 replaced its aging collection of Unix terminals, switching the servants to fully equipped Linux desktops, and using Linux servers to manage files and printers. For office tools, civil servants used OpenOffice.

Proprietary services
For a handful of proprietary applications, the IT department used proprietary remote access services, allowing users of Linux desktops to access the required proprietary tools. "But here the number of problems slowly started to increase, resulting in more and more proprietary services being required."

At the same time, Kapica says, the city councillors failed to understand how their dependence on proprietary document formats was causing interoperability problems with the civil servants.

"The councillors only used the proprietary desktop environment and did not warm to the Linux desktop used by the civil servants. They did not understand that the documents they prepared on a computer at home, could not be always opened correctly by colleagues at the city hall."

According to Kapica, the council members began lobbying for a migration by the district's administration to the proprietary desktop. "This quickly turned into a matter of money. Moving to proprietary software would increase the IT costs almost three-fold, from 1.5 million to 4 million Czech Korunas every year."

In spite of these spiralling costs, council members kept on asking for a move, having more and more interoperability problems with documents.

The IT department suggested an alternative and much cheaper solution, to move the council members to a Linux desktop. At this point, says Kapica, the debate turned political. "The communists lost the elections in 2006, and without their vote for a move to Linux, the new coalition quickly shelved this plan."

The new district coalition, however, two years later managed to get funds from the central Ostrava administration, the Magistrat. "The Magistrat released these funds just before financial crisis struck, in 2008 and just after the Czech Ministry of the Interior signed of a framework contract for proprietary software licences."

"The council members in 2009 broke-up the IT department, replaced the management and forced the new IT staff to replace the Linux terminals by proprietary desktops."

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