Italian region asks for help to avoid software lock-in… to Microsoft

Today, after the initial surprise caused by knowing that Left party leader and president of the italian region of Puglia, Nichi Vendola, has just signed a Berlusconi-like deal with Microsoft offering an explanation that, alas, doesn’t really explain much, we started to know something about the content of the deal (because the bigger, problem in this whole business, much more of the presence of Microsoft, is lack of transparency).

The Region of Puglia published a press release titled, more or less, “Protocol of understanding between the Region of Puglia and Microsoft. Vendola says: (this is for) technological neutrality (a summary of the press release was also published by Italian newspaper Corriere del Mezzogiorno.

The title of the press release is the first thing that creates perplexity, unless this is the first of a series of similar deals with other companies. In this context, and in ICT in general, “technological neutrality” means more or less “to guarantee that each public or private software user can freely choose which software to use, and that each software vendor competes fairly with all the others”. Therefore, “technological neutrality” really seems a title that one should only use for a multy-parties deal, a deal made among one Public Administration and all its software suppliers, in order to not be locked in by any of them and to make all of them compete on a fair ground: that is not a title apt to define a deal made with only one software vendor, especially if that vendor happens to be the one that already enjoys a de-facto monopoly in several areas of the software industry.

Besides the title, there are two points of the press release that describes the deal that will have to be monitored very closely in the future. One is education: “The Region of Puglia and Microsoft Italy will commit to facilitate access to, and usage, of ICT technologies across all the schools of Puglia, valorizing adoption of ICT solutions for educational and administrative activities.”

This point needs watching because if, in the future, those “ICT technologies” will turn out to be mostly Microsoft products, first it will be quite hard to keep saying that this deal was about “technological neutrality”. Secondly, because in that case the deal signed by Nichi Vendola, a political opponent of Silvio Berlusconi, will have been simply unnecessary; for the simple reason that the Berlusconi government itself took care last year to facilitate Microsoft promotions in Italian Public Schools. And if that’s not the expected result, why make a deal just with Microsoft?

The other issue that everybody, starting from… Microsoft stockholders, should follow very closely is this (again from the official press release): “the goal of this Protocol is to… guarantee interoperability and cooperation among all organizations, be they public or private”.

This is important because, when it comes to software, there are two ways to guarantee interoperability among different organizations:

  1. mandate that all the communications among those organizations, or among them and the Public Administration,only happen through really open file formats and computer protocols, where “really open” means non-secret and really usable without any restriction with any software program, without really bothering about which software people actually user
  2. convince everybody to use one and only one set of software programs, all developed by the same vendor

In the context of this deal, both solutions must live with the fact that the formats of Microsoft Office aren’t acknowledged as open by the Italian Government. Then there’s the fact that any corporation is obliged to maximize the profits for its stockholders. If you had stocks of the only private, for-profit party in a deal like this, which of those two solutions would you prefer? Doesn’t the second solution seem the only one that the Microsoft managers in Italy will (be forced to) pursue if they want to keep their jobs?

All in all, it will be quite interesting to see how this deal will turn out. Because asking Microsoft, or only to Microsoft, to help you to achieve technological neutrality sounds like a lamb asking a wolf to organize a vegetarian party for the lamb’s birthday.