Gates addresses Italian Senate amid protest

Bill Gates outlined his optimistic vision of the coming digital decade in a speech to the Italian Senate Friday as open source advocates in penguin suits protested his visit and called on the Italian government to legislate in favor of the use of open-source software by the state administration as an alternative to Microsoft Corp.'s ubiquitous operating systems.

Gates demonstrated a Hewlett-Packard Corp. Tablet PC for an invited audience of Italian politicians including Technological Innovation Minister Lucio Stanca and Communications Minister Maurizio Gasparri. Wristwatch computers five times more powerful than the first IBM personal computers would be on the market by next year, he predicted, saying they would offer real time access to sports, weather and stock market data.

Gates showed off "smart" wristwatches recently at the Consumer Electronics Show in Las Vegas. The technology behind such smart devices is called Smart Personal Object Technology, or SPOT, and was developed by Microsoft's research group, building on advances in a variety of different technologies.

"Thanks to new technologies, we can expect sustained economic growth as in recent years," Gates said, speaking in a frescoed chamber of the upper house of the Italian parliament. "I am not an economist, but I think that in the next few years the economy will be rather stable, and there will not be anything dramatic or radical."

Digital technology will continue to transform the way people live, he said, freeing music, photographs and documents from their traditional physical supports. Technological advances would offer particular advantages for the handicapped and significant progress would be made in the fields of speech recognition and synthesis, the Microsoft founder said. Many technology companies failed in the 90s because they did not have good business models, but digital technology will continue to generate productivity increases and many dot-com dreams will be realized over the next decade, Gates said.

Meanwhile, open source software advocates mounted a protest.

"We are here to promote free information technology," said Raffaele Calvelli, a computer programmer from Florence, as he donned a penguin suit in front of the Senate building. "The penguin is the symbol of Linux, which is created with open-source software. The Senate should be inviting the promoters of free software, rather than Bill Gates."

Microsoft faces a growing battle against open-source software, primarily the Linux operating system, in the competition for government administration contracts around the globe. Countries such as Finland, Germany, France, Taiwan and China have adopted open-source software or are considering doing so and an Italian Green Party senator has tabled a bill that would commit Italy's civil service to doing the same.

The bill has cross-party support and could receive parliamentary approval by the end of the year, its proponent, Senator Fiorello Cortiana, told reporters at a Senate press conference following Gates' address. "The bill proposes that the state administration should opt for free software whenever its technical performance is comparable to that of the proprietary software," Cortiana said. Open-source licenses allow users to access and modify the source code and the result is often advantageous in terms of security and stability, Cortiana said. Lawmakers supporting the bill were not doing so on ideological grounds and there would be no absolute choice in favor of one solution rather than another, he said.

"The adoption by the civil service of a cheaper, more effective and secure operating system is not a technical matter but a distinct political choice capable of influencing the way in which our country will develop," the senator wrote in a preamble to the bill. Article 6 of the proposed law reads: "The civil service shall use, within its activity, computer programs of which it holds the source code." It instructs the civil service to give preference to free or, alternatively, open-source programs and to provide a detailed explanation whenever it chooses to do otherwise.

Cortiana said he was concerned Gates' visit to Italy, which included a private lunch with Prime Minister Silvio Berlusconi, may have been intended to lobby against the public development of free software. Recent visits by the Microsoft chairman to Peru and India had served a similar purpose and resulted in the expanded use of Microsoft products in those countries, he said. "If Gates came here to try and cut off this avenue, then I fear we may not hear any more of the public development of freeware in Italy," he said.

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