'Ditch Microsoft Office or take a pay cut: Which would you choose?'

'Ditch Microsoft Office or take a pay cut: Which would you choose?'

Summary: Threatened with a major budget cut that could have seen employees pay slashed, one Italian region decided to ditch its Microsoft Office software to make up the shortfall instead.

The capital of South Tyrol, the region that decided to ditch proprietary software rather than cut staff's wages. Image: Shutterstock

The strongest driver for free software adoption in a public administration? Fear of layoffs.

If you don't believe it, ask the autonomous province of South Tyrol, in Northern Italy. The local government has just begun implementing a plan that will have most public sector organisations in the region using LibreOffice by 2016. Really.

And why did they do it? Because the austerity measures passed by the national government meant the region was left facing a €16m cut to its personnel budget. In order to avoid cutting employees (or, more likely, their pay), management and unions had to find a creative solution. Which they did: a mass migration from Microsoft Office to an open source equivalent.

"The savings are mandatory, so it was either us or the proprietary software," said Erwin Pfeifer, not entirely joking. Pfeifer is a member of the autonomous province's IT department and one of the people managing the project.

The total cost of the migration is estimated to be €2.7m. The investment, said the administration, will start paying off from the very beginning. In 2013 the expected savings will amount to €500,000 a figure projected to increase to €1m per year subequently.

"The cut will be mostly in software licenses," said Paolo Dongilli, a colleague of Pfeifer in the province's IT department. But the migration will have another benefit for the administration's balance sheet: "Unlike certain proprietary software licences where you rent a software package for a limited time, free software acquisition and customisation expenses can be capitalised and counted as assets," Dongilli said.

Announced in June, the plan will also make Open Document Format (ODF) the standard format for the exchange of documents between all public sector organisations in South Tyrol. At the end of the three-year process a total of 16,000 workstations will have been migrated to LibreOffice, the open source productivity suite that was forked from OpenOffice in 2010.

"We opted for LibreOffice over OpenOffice because we think this gives us more guarantees. It has a more consistent and constantly growing community of developers and by statute has to be independent from corporations," Pfeifer said.

Plus, the fact that the productivity suite has been adopted in big international migration projects like the city of Munich's, helps. "We are talking about huge implementations which create a vast ecosystem of companies supporting the software. And that makes us feel more secure that the development will continue," he said.

The project, which involves all the offices of the province, the health organisations and most municipalities of the region, doesn't really mean starting from scratch. Between 2003 and 2012 thousands of workstations used by public sector bodies in the area — including a significant chunk ofits schools — installed LibreOffice (or its predecessor) making the open source productivity suite already quite widespread in the South Tyrol public sector.

"We are taking a big step forward but it is by no means the end," Pfefer said. "Not only are we looking for more public organisations that could migrate in the future but we're also looking at [swapping out] other kinds of software, and soon we'll have to think about the cloud."

To smooth out the transition of such a big number of workstations, the administration decided to call on local ICT providers for assistance. Some 70 percent of the €2.7m invested in the project will go to South Tyrol companies, which will be involved in training, assistance and software development.

"We want to create an ecosystem around free software for the public sector, and the private sector, which has been involved from the very beginning, is ready to follow us," Dongilli said. "[Suppliers] just ask for stability: they want to be sure that the decision won't be reversed. And it won't."

A competence centre will be also be set up to become the go-to place for all the organisations involved who need help in using, extending and managing LibreOffice. The centre, which will put together by staff from the various public administrations and local companies, will promote collaboration between the different institutions and will serve as contact point with ICT local companies.

That doesn't make the initiative less complex, though. Around 16,000 employees will be involved, and many of them won't be eager to change the software they have been used to for so many years. Based on the experience of other Italian migrations, including that undertaken by the Umbria region in the centre of Italy, in the Autonomous Province of South Tyrol, communication will be key.

"We talked with people involved in other migration plans and they told us the biggest issues are not technical but organisational," Dongilli said. "So we will try to communicate the rationale of the plan at every level from upper management down. We will try to reach out even administrations not involved in the project so that they might take the same path in the future."

What will be hard to fight are habits, built up over a long time. "There are some school teachers who have been building their examples and lessons on Microsoft Excel for years, have been building macros. Now it can be annoying for them to switch. We've got to do a good work of listening and communicating in cases like these," he said.

In the end, though, the most powerful argument will always be economic. "Remember," Pfeifer said, "it's either your proprietary productivity suite or your salary. Which one would you choose?"

Further reading

Topics: Enterprise Software, Open Source, EU

Raffaele Mastrolonardo

About Raffaele Mastrolonardo

Raffaele Mastrolonardo is a journalist and co-founder of effecinque news agency. He has been writing about technology for the past 11 years or so for some of the most important Italian news media.

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  • Bravo!

    Excellent news; I only wish that more public institutions would do the same. Good for us tax payers, good for the further development of free software. Molto bene!

    Next step: an open source operating system on the computers, saving even more money? Like the French gendarmerie is doing with Ubuntu?
    • Too much propitiatory software and lack of Exchange support for Linux

      Replacing Office is one thing, replacing Windows another thing entirely.
      • Better propitiatory

        ...than proprietary!
      • Propitiatory?

        I think you meant "proprietary." "Propitiatory" is an actual word, but it means "conciliatory." It looks like your spell-checker misfired. :-)
        • Earth to Harry

          You completely missed the point; James knew exactly the meaning of his words, the meaning of which you have defined for the wrong reasons. Glad you learned something.
      • I guess you expect to be paid for whatever you do for living

        now for this org..they will get to realize their actual savings or they'll probably will never admit the facts
      • aye, but a massive first step...

        If there is any reason not to go to a fully open source solution, it would have to be that MS Office and Outlook are very good and that they work - workers know them, have been educated with them, grew up with them. I think these now, are Microsoft's primary assets. I think this is an approach to open-sourcedness that will work better than the German experiment with replacing windows with linux - that is a lot of change to get people to not mind too much...
        • How hard can it be?

          Switching to a new software that closely resembled Microsoft's old, "unimproved" interface should be a lot easier than getting used that that "ribbon" idiocy after decades of "growing up on" the old icon and menu system. What Microsoft did with their 2010 interface has a bigger learning curve than going to any other software that has a look and feel more similar to what people have been used to since 1997.

          So much for objecting to change.
      • it will take time but it is doable

        The French gendarmerie will finish to migrate 70.000 Windows XP to Linux by the end if this year. They have been working on the project since 2004 by first replacing MS office. Nowadays most new projects are web based so Windows are not anymore essential and open source alternative solutions are economically more interesting.
    • An easy choice

      Clearly, Microsoft Office is not a commodity.
      Rabid Howler Monkey
  • It is a creative solution

    In the world of government budget priorities, software licenses are often a necessary expense. Buying MS office when open source alternatives are available is not a "necessary" expense.

    My phone knows my typing patterns and the auto-suggest is amazingly accurate when communicating with family and friends. MS cannot keep selling a bloated office suite that is still remarkably similar to its decades old predecessor. MS needs to build enough intelligence into its office suite that it can function as an assistant, rather than offering the maze of menus , ribbons, keyboard shortcuts, and formatting frustrations that come with feature bloat. If it doesn't, we can expect many more stories like this.
    • creative solution

      Microsoft seems to be focused on protecting their profits than advancing their software.
      Brian Schrader
  • it's hard to compete with free....

    ...but you get what you pay for. Nothing is really free.
    • LibreOffice actually is

      It is just bits on a device, not a physical thing. And since the license says it is free, why can't it be free?
      • Free is not free if its going to cost in lost businesses

        I have no problem with saving money when you can. But MOST of the time, free usually ends up costing a hell of a lot more.

        In the case of Open/Libre Office, it only takes ONE lost business to completely blow away the savings you got for not paying for a MS Word license.

        The CORRECT way of approaching cost savings is to have as limited number of licenses for MS Office Pro (people who really need it), and everyone else (who really do little to nothing) can use a free office suite. With fewer licenses you save money and still be able to support regular business that require newer MS Word formats (specially PowerPoint).
        • Question

          Do you know of any businesses that failed because they weren't using MS-Office?
          John L. Ries
        • Confusing products

          First, you're confusing products. Word and Power Point are two different products.

          Second, the cost you mean, would be in the re-education of people that haven't ever used LibreOffice before. While not significantly different from Office to LibreOffice, its not entirely insignificant either.

          case in point, In Excel, a simple way to keep track of some IP blocks was to list the IP range or ip/cidr set in the name of the page's tab. IP's are of course, 4 dotted decimal octets. eg: .. and unless changed recently, LibreCacl doesn't like *dots* in the tab name where Excel is perfectly happy.

          how this is not so insignificant, is if you have formulas or other tab to tab items on a spreadsheet, when opening / converting to ODF ... Calc changed the DOT to _ and you didn't know .. now it becomes a problem.

          Beyond that ... its amazing what it takes to finally get people to see the cost of capitulation with all things microsoft.

          It sounds like, however ... the re-education efforts will be there for these people ... and once they learn that they really operate similarly and they start having to think just a tad more when it comes to navigating their work, programs, etc ... they will create a new round of productivity gains for their local govt.

          Good Work South Tyrol !!
          • PS / Follow up

            PS, I've just checked a new build of Calc ... dots are now allowed in names of tabs ... so one less reason for avoiding OO/Libre
    • Of course things are free

      Open Office IS free.. it's the result of programmers either donating their time, or corporations donating their programmers' time. So in that sense, it's "free as in beer". Entirely. If it doesn't do the job you need, don't use it, but that doesn't make it un-free to the millions using it.

      And of course, it's also "free as in speech", in that you can get the source code and make any changes you might like.

      Now of course, if you want to be pedantic, sure, no piece of software is actually "free to use", since you have to pay for the computer, the power to run the computer, etc. But there is no additional cost for Open Office (or LibreOffice) over and above some dedication of your computing resources... which you'd need anyway for MS-Office.
      • There are costs beyond money

        I'm all for saving taxpayers' money, and jobs too, but at some point the push towards free software is going to start costing us. If no one is paying for software, in the long run no one will be able to afford to develop it. How many programmers or corporations can be expected to be this philanthropic in the long term and still keep food on their own table?