French government outlines plans for free software adoption

The plan could see up to 10 percent of money saved on proprietary software licenses reinvested in improving free software

French government agencies could become more active participants in free software projects, under an action plan sent by Prime Minister Jean-Marc Ayrault in a letter to ministers, while software giants Microsoft and Oracle might lose out as the government pushes free software such as LibreOffice or PostgreSQL in some areas.

Ayrault wants different branches of the French administration to use the same free software as one another when possible, so as to share experience and cut support costs. Until now, each ministry or agency has been left to pursue its own strategy.

He also wants them to reinvest between 5 percent and 10 percent of the money they save through not paying for proprietary software licenses, spending it instead on contributing to the development of the free software. The administration already submits patches and bug fixes for the applications it uses, but Ayrault wants to go beyond that, contributing to or paying for the addition of new functionality to the software.

Software support is another area where Ayrault wants concerted action, suggesting they might profit from a support contract already negotiated by the Interior Ministry, which includes a provision for discounts if other agencies need support for the same code base.

The action plan was outlined in a report prepared by the Interministerial Directorate for Communication and IT Systems, which the prime minister asked his ministers to put into effect.

That report shies away for the most part from recommending specific applications or operating systems, but does say that existing projects to adopt the LibreOffice desktop productivity suite and the PostgreSQL database engine are "essential."

On the desktop, the report highlights areas for study, including whether to use the Trustedbird mail client or Thunderbird, and whether to choose Mozilla Firefox or Google Chrome. It also suggests creating a system for converting existing documents into free formats, and participating in the development of a grammar checker to integrate with other software.

While the report clearly favors PostgreSQL for database applications, it recommends watching the future evolution of MySQL, MariaDB, SkySQL and the various "NoSQL" code bases.

The French administration favors no particular operating system for now, although choosing a distribution of Linux to standardize on is another of the report's recommendations.

Ayrault followed the report in its choice of terminology, avoiding the general term open source software and writing specifically of free software, referring to the freedoms to use the software for any purpose, to study the code and adapt it, to redistribute copies of it, and to improve the software and distribute the improvements.

French free software user group April said on Monday that it hoped the plan would lead to a new government policy prioritizing the use and development of free software, inspired by recent changes in Italy's public procurement laws.

Another lobby group, the National Council for Free Software (CNLL), said that while the state had long been a user of free software, it had rarely taken such a clear stance in favor of it, nor proposed such concrete actions.

Among the advantages of free software, Ayrault wrote, were its lower cost, its flexibility in use, and the leverage it provides in discussions with other software publishers.

There are other advantages, said CNLL, including the contribution it can make to industrial growth. It can cut the costs, and increase the competitivity, of existing businesses, but can also contribute to the economy more directly, CNLL said: 30,000 already work in the free software ecosystem in France, and it is growing at 30 percent annually.

The report conceded that free software isn't for everyone. Applications used by a small number of people, or only one or two groups of users, are unlikely to provide the necessary economies of scale in development and support, it said, while complex systems can be difficult to break down into modules that can easily be replaced with existing free software projects, it said.

Peter Sayer covers open source software, European intellectual property legislation and general technology breaking news for IDG News Service. Send comments and news tips to Peter at peter_sayer@idg.com.

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Peter Sayer

IDG News Service

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