The European Commission, the European Union's executive branch, has launched a Web site aimed at improving understanding of open-source software. The site adds to the EU's substantial moves to support open source, which is seen by many EU member states as a way of cutting public-sector costs, stimulating the local software industry and fostering interoperability free of proprietary constraints.
The Free and Open Source Software (F/OSS) site, launched earlier this month, is part of the EC's Information Society programme, which focuses on technology's impact on government and society. It brings together information about EU research programmes and e-government initiatives related to open source.
"In recent years, the software market has shown signs of entering a much more volatile and vigorous period... due to the emergence of F/OSS," the EC stated. "F/OSS creates new opportunities for software and service providers, which may be a unique opportunity for the European software industry."
Open-source software, also called "free software" or "libre software", is characterised by the lack of control by a single entity, a key difference from proprietary software, the workings of which is usually kept a tight secret by private companies. Broadly speaking, open source software licences allow developers to modify and redistribute the software's source code, as long as the modifications are returned to the community.
The EU has launched a number of open-source initiatives since 1998, and currently funds 20 research projects directly supporting open source, under the Fifth Framework Programme (1998-2002). In preparation for the Sixth Framework Programme, the EC has recommended that governments encourage the use of open source as a way of ensuring interoperability.
Interoperability, particularly in the area of server protocols and document formats, has emerged as a key concern of governments looking to limit the power of software giants such as Microsoft. A Danish study recently recommended that the EU investigate alternatives to Microsoft Office formats, possibly by creating a new XML-based format or supporting existing open-source formats, such as those of OpenOffice.org.
Some German government bodies, including the City of Munich, are actively promoting open-source alternatives as a way of reducing reliance on Microsoft, and some UK government bodies are testing the open-source approach.
The debate around current attempts to modify patent laws has centred partly around how the proposed changes would affect Europe's open-source software industry. Critics said the original draft directive would have encouraged software patents, stifling open-source vendors.