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EC distorts market by refusing to break free from lock-in

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The European Commission has recently renewed its commitment to a proprietary desktop and secret file formats.The Commission is refusing to get serious about breaking free from vendor lock-in, and is ignoring all available alternatives. In doing so, the EU's civil service fails to practice what it preaches.

In April, the Commission signed two contracts with Microsoft: An agreement for "high-level services" worth 44 million Euro, and a framework agreement on software licensing conditions. The actual licenses are provided by Hewlett-Packard under a separate contract from 2012, worth 50 million euro. The contracts cover the Commission itself, and 54 other EU organisations.

"We are extremely disappointed about the lack of progress here," says FSFE president Karsten Gerloff. "The Commission has not even looked for viable alternatives. Its lazy approach to software procurement leaves the Commission open to allegations of inertia, and worse."

The Commission recently admitted publicly for the first time that it is in "effective captivity" to Microsoft. But documents obtained by FSFE show that the Commission has made no serious effort to find solutions based on Open Standards. In consequence, a large part of Europe's IT industry is essentially locked out of doing business with the Commission.

In a strategy paper which the Commission released in response to official questions from MEP Andersdotter, the EC lays out a three-track approach for its office automation platform for the coming years. This strategy will only deepen the Commission's reliance on secret, proprietary file formats and programs.

"The Commission should be setting a positive example for public administrations across Europe," comments Gerloff. "Instead, it shirks its responsibility as a public administrations, and simply claims that such alternatives don't exist. Even the most basic market analysis would have told the Commission that there's a vibrant Free Software industry in Europe that it could have relied on."

Many public organisations in Europe are successfully using Free Software solutions that implement Open Standards. Examples are the German city of Munich with its internationally recognised Limux project, and the UK government, which has made great strides in using Free Software and Open Standards to obtain value for money in IT procurement. Over the years, many of these progressive organisations have asked the Commission for practical and moral support for their course. This latest move by the Commission will seem a cruel joke to them.

Despite this setback, FSFE will continue to work with the Commission, and help it improve the way it buys software. It could do so by relying on specifications and standards rather than brand names, by using an open call for tender instead of talking to a single vendor, and by figuring future exit costs into the price of any new solution. These practices are fast becoming the norm across Europe's public sector. The EC should practice what it preaches, and adopt these practices for its own procurement.