Europe's Microsoft Alternative
Region in Spain Abandons Windows, Embraces Linux

By Ariana Eunjung Cha
Washington Post Staff Writer
Sunday, November 3, 2002; Page A01

MERIDA, Spain -- Luis Millan Vazquez de Miguel, a college professor turned politician, is succeeding where multibillion-dollar, multinational corporations have failed. He is managing to unseat Microsoft Corp. as the dominant player in the software industry, at least in his little part of the world.

Vazquez de Miguel is the minister of education, science and technology in a western region of Spain called Extremadura, a mostly rural expanse of olive trees and tiny towns with 1.1 million inhabitants. In April, the government launched an unorthodox campaign to convert all the area's computer systems, in government offices, businesses and homes, from the Windows operating system to Linux, a free alternative.

Already, Vazquez de Miguel said, more than 10,000 desktop machines have been switched, with 100,000 more scheduled for conversion in the next year. Organizers regard the drive as a low-cost way to bring technology to the masses in the impoverished region.

"We are the future," he said. "If Microsoft doesn't become more open and generous with its code, people will stop using it and it will disappear."

Extremadura is being closely watched by Linux enthusiasts and Microsoft for how it manages the transition. Such efforts are likely to become the next front in the battle to steal market share from Microsoft, now that a federal judge has approved a settlement in its antitrust case in the United States.

For now, many denizens of Extremadura find themselves having to use both operating systems, if for no other reason than to deal with an outside world that still relies heavily on Microsoft. But the campaign suggests that nationalism could play a powerful role in blunting the software company's expansion, as nation-states grow wary of becoming too dependent on the know-how of a single American corporation.

Linux is one of several operating systems available free on the Internet. Programmers from around the world teamed up to develop the original program, and then private companies and others adapted the work to create their own unique flavors of the open-source software. Linux distributions these days go by a variety of names, including Red Hat, Suse and Mandrake.

In Extremadura, the regional government paid a local company $180,000 to cobble together a set of freely available software. The resulting disk contains a suite of programs that includes an operating system, word processor, spreadsheet and other applications. The government also invested in a development center that is creating customized software for accounting, tracking hospital patients and crop-yield management that the agency will distribute free to citizens.

So far, the government has produced 150,000 discs with the software, and it is distributing them in schools, electronics stores, community centers and as inserts in newspapers. It has even taken out TV commercials about the benefits of free software.

Others are taking notice. A Spanish computer magazine began distributing the Linux disk that Extremadura created and a publisher is in the process of printing a book about the effort that will double as an instruction manual. Several of the region's major distributors of computers have agreed to pre-install the Extremadura Linux instead of Windows.

For many, the Extremadura project symbolizes the seriousness of assaults on Microsoft by governments around the world. The European Economic Commission is promoting it as a model for the rest of the world, and officials from governments as far away as New Zealand and Peru have inquired about duplicating the region's efforts.

There are now nearly 70 laws or policy proposals pending in two dozen countries that would force or at least encourage governments to use open-source software. This year Germany said it signed a contract to use Linux in many of its government systems; other significant economic powers such as the United Kingdom, China, Italy and Brazil are studying the matter.

Microsoft has argued for years that free software is inferior to commercially made products because it requires a high level of technical expertise to make it work.

But such arguments have grown less persuasive as corporations and governments have taken on the responsibility of creating stable versions of the free software. International Business Machines Corp., Sun Microsystems Inc., Hewlett-Packard Co. and others are developing Linux-based services, focusing primarily on the corporate market.

"Linux has gone from a graduate student's project to a major force," Giga Information Group analysts Stacey Quandt and Bob Zimmerman wrote in a recent report.

Juantomas Garcia, a programmer who has been lobbying the Spanish government to expand its use of free software, said such software is leaving the province free of "hackers and geeks and is migrating to a real tool for everyone."

To Keep People Home

Extremadura is best known as the birthplace of many of the conquistadors -- Francisco Pizarro, Hernan Cort s and Hernando de Soto among them -- who made their mark after leaving the place. Vazquez de Miguel, too, fled in his early years. He went to the United States to get his doctorate and worked as an organic chemist doing AIDS and cancer research before a friend convinced him that he could do more good for his people by returning and taking a job as a professor at the local university.

Vazquez de Miguel, 52, says that by empowering people to use computers through Linux, he will be able to stop the outward migration and create new industries in Extremadura.

Like many Linux advocates, he speaks about the software in emotional terms. "Connectivity and literacy" equals "equality and liberty," he said.

Microsoft regards such talk as too dramatic and distracting. It is software, after all, not war, company officials said. It is far more productive in their view to talk about the technical aspects of Windows vs. Linux.

"There's been too much theology and not enough economic analysis in the debate so far," said Bradford L. Smith, Microsoft's general counsel, who oversees the company's global lobbying team.

"Consider that there's a lot more to the total cost and value of a product than the initial offering somebody might give you," Smith said. For instance, it is often expensive to find support services for free software, whereas such help comes bundled with the purchase of Windows. And companies like Microsoft have a vested interest in updating their products; that's not necessarily so with free software.

"Somebody might give you a free puppy this afternoon," Smith said, "but you're going to have to go buy dog food in the morning."

To eliminate some of the headaches, the Extremadura government paid Andago, a Spanish company, to take one of the free versions of Linux on the Web and make it suitable for public distribution. Organizers called their version "Linex," combining the names of Linux and Extremadura. The software has become so popular that it has been downloaded more than 55,000 times from www.linex.org by people outside Extremadura.

The beauty of the Extremadura project, according to its supporters, is that the team has managed to create an all-in-one package of software that is relatively easy to install. The Linux desktop looks nearly identical to the Windows one, except that the icons are designed to reflect the region's familiar historical landmarks. To get word processing, for example, users click on "Borcense," a picture of 16th century writer Francisco Sanchez de las Brozas; for the Internet, click on "Galeon," a crane that lives in the oak meadows and cereal plains of the region.

Aside from the aesthetic difference, the configuration is familiar enough so most Windows users require little training.

"Most people don't even notice there is a difference," said Inis Garcia Vadillo, who is one of the directors of a government-funded community computer lab that recently converted from Windows to Linux.

Avel Lopez Perez, 14, a Calamonte Secondary School student who uses Windows at home, agreed: "Entering and leaving the computer is the only different thing I see."

An Early Stumble

Extremadura's first go around with Linux might be called a disaster.

When computer users first installed the software this spring, it seemed to work fine. Users could type a document and edit it and create pictures and save them. But a major bug was discovered within days: If users tried to print or view a video or do anything that involved peripherals or multimedia, strange error messages popped up.

It took a team of developers three months to fix the problem, during which anyone who converted to Linux had to download their documents on a disk and run over to a Windows machine to print them. Teachers grumbled that they could not teach properly because they could not use all the audio and video of the Internet.

Now most of the problems are relatively minor, several users said.

Ana Acevedo, who heads one of the government's document-processing units, said some Windows files she receives have come up jumbled on Linux programs. As a result, she has had to keep both Windows and Linux on her machine and toggles back and forth between the two throughout the day.

But the glitches are more an annoyance, she said, than a hassle. "It's mostly very tiny things," she said.

Web-page designer Carlos Sanchez Rubio, owner of a start-up called 4 Gatos, works with two machines on his desk -- one with Linux and another with Windows. He uses free software to create his pages but finds that sometimes there are differences in color or formatting when the page is viewed on Windows. And since the majority of the world runs Windows, it is critical that a page look good in Windows.

"Sometimes the designs come out very strange," he said.

Fear of Domination

Among the touchiest issues that Microsoft faces outside the United States is the uneasiness some countries have expressed about allowing an American company to dominate the software industry in their country.

"Non-U.S. governments in particular view open source as a way to break the stranglehold against Microsoft. If Microsoft owns everything their countries, their own companies can't get a foothold in the software industry," said Ted Schadler, an analyst for Forrester Research Inc.

Some Spanish government systems and those belonging to the telecommunications company Telefonica recently were shifted to Linux partly because of security concerns. In Florence, legislators talked of breaking the "the computer science subjection of the Italian state to Microsoft."

Mario Pelosi of Italy's Department of Innovation and Technology said his country recently decided to form a commission to study the desirability of Linux. "The technology is changing every day, and if you are in charge for the innovation and technology this is an issue and subject that you have to study," he said.

Microsoft and its supporters have vigorously lobbied against any laws or policies that dictate what software a government can or cannot buy. The software company's advocates argue that such policies stifle innovation. They also say the initiatives may be a violation of World Trade Organization rules requiring all members to treat foreign companies the same as they would their own.

For the most part, however, Microsoft in recent years has toned down its arguments against Linux, saying there is room for both forms of software.

Peaceful coexistence was the theme of a meeting last month between Vazquez de Miguel and Rosa Garcia, general manager of Microsoft Spain, who called up saying she wanted to hear more about the Extremadura project.

People who attended the meeting described it as akin to an Abbott and Costello skit. He tried to extol the values of Linux, she did the same for Windows, and neither seemed to understand what the other was saying.

In the end, she did not make an offer to sell Microsoft software and he did not want her to. They shook hands and she told him that she thought that Microsoft software and Linux software could thrive in the same world.

Vazquez de Miguel told her he agreed. What he did not tell her was that in his mind, co-existence means a world that's the flip side of today: 90 percent Linux, 10 percent Microsoft.

© 2002 The Washington Post Company