Vienna takes the boldest step of all - asking the users

Choosing software is too often political. Yet politics is for the people - so ask them

As befits an ancient city in the centre of Europe, Vienna has seen its share of revolution. One of the greatest happened in 1848, when the city threw off the rule of the ancient, authoritarian Hapsburg dynasty and gave control to the locals.

Some of that revolutionary yet pragmatic spirit can still be found in the city's IT department. Rather than mandate a switch to Linux and OpenOffice.org (OOo), the department is letting the people decide. They have a choice between Microsoft Office or OOo on Windows, or they can move to Linux and OOo. IT will support any choice but will charge more for the Microsoft alternatives -- and will train those who want to make the switch.

Of the 16,000 Viennese desktop PCs, half could switch to OOo and five thousand could switch completely to full open source. Those are healthy figures, but the real importance is that users and line managers will make that decision for themselves.

Users are too often forgotten by the zealots and marketing departments on either side of the Great Debate. Those who rallied early under the open standard did so for technical and religious reasons, sometimes both: it validated community development while offering decent performance, stability and security. Meanwhile, the suits were fighting back with TCO, corporate support and the sheer inertia of the established order. The users took what they were given: if they were considered, it was as useful idiots needing the sort of extensive support that, corporate software said, free and open source software could not supply.

Open source software can most certainly supply that now: the perceived risk of switching is accordingly lower, and the idea of switching is more acceptable at board level. Thus, many open source migrations are ordained from on high -- possibly for as many bad reasons as good.

In Vienna, the users will decide. They're likely to have the same vague attachment to their computer's operating system as many Europeans have to their religion: not for them the zeal of the recent converts or those committed to revolutionary warfare. The decision to switch -- or not -- will be made on the unholy trinity of practicality, lack of hassle and lowest expense; these are base desires, but commendable. They are precisely the mundane reasons on which any grand design will eventually prosper or founder.

For this reason, Vienna will be a bellwether, and we should watch the results carefully. As for the Hapsburgs -- they fought back and reasserted their power, but were fatally weakened in the process. Make of that what you will.

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