Open source's fortunes in Poland could be about to change, thanks to education
Open source has had a mixed reception in Poland's public sector, with some government agencies actively blocking efforts to increase uptake of the software. But the situation could be set for a reversal, after changes in the education sector.
Open source in Poland has so far had had something of a mixed reception. While some government institutions go out of their way to include open source in their IT environments, others go out of their way to keep it out. However, there are signs that open source software could find more fertile soil in this part of Europe in the future.
When the German city of Munich announced in November it had saved €10m after switching to open source office software, Polish commentators began demanding to know why the country's government agencies didn't do the same. At best, the Polish tech community suggests, the country's government is lagging in its approach to open source. At worst, lobbyists and companies have succeeded in trying to keep the public sector as vendor locked-in as possible.
"The law says public tenders cannot demand a specific product or company. Unfortunately, there are ways here to circumvent that with an alternate description" — Michal Wozniak, FWIOO
But the situation could be worse, according to Michal Wozniak, president of Poland's Foundation for Free and Open Software (FWIOO).
"I think the situation here is quite similar compared to Western Europe. About 90 percent of government agencies are using free software in some way or the other," he says. "However, there is need for improvement."
One organisation that demonstrates what Wozniak sees as the public sector's antiquated outlook towards open source is the Polish tax office. "They have a program that allows businesses to file their tax returns electronically," Wozniak says. "However, they only offered a Windows version of it." When developers managed to reverse-engineer the code and build a Linux version, they were sued by the tax office for doing so without its permission. "The developers won the case in 2007, but they stopped their project as the legal proceedings had consumed too much of their time and energy. So far, nobody picked up where they left off."
Are tenders open to open source?
When it comes to open source, a great deal of scrutiny is given to tenders written by the government. The tenders are supposed to be product neutral, but that's something some parts of government are struggling with, Wozniak says. The FWIOO runs a project keeping tabs on how fair public IT tenders are towards open source products, naming and shaming those government agencies that don't keep to the rules.
"Like in other countries, the law says public tenders cannot demand a specific product or company," Wozniak says. "Unfortunately, there are ways here to circumvent that with an alternate description. For example, we encounter tenders that state a product name, supplemented with 'or an alternative'. That makes it very hard for would-be open source vendors to know what exact specifications are needed."
One example he names is the municipality of Mielec, in south eastern Poland. Rather than stipulate a particular company's products - and so risk breaking vendor neutrality - "they simply wrote in a tender for a new IT system that it should 'not be open source,' in the hope they could escape naming and shaming". Wozniak argues that this not only throws up ideological issues around software, but practical ones as well. "Even Windows uses protocols and tools that are in some way open source, so that would be problematic for them." After intervention, the Mielec tender was altered.
Another typical, and somewhat ironic, recent example of a bad tender is one from the CBA, the government's anti-corruption bureau. The agency specified that the vast majority of the hardware covered by the tender must come with a Microsoft OS on board. "They used the argument that they are vendor-locked," says Wozniak. "That particular example got a lot of bad press though, because of the nature of the agency."
The other side of the coin
However, Wozniak also sees examples of good practices in Poland. "In Jaworzno, all schools have implemented a Linux-based system with centralised login and home directory," he says. "When a student switches schools, for example from primary school to secondary, he can log in to his profile from there." Wozniak expects schools to become the main driver for open-source implementation in Poland in the coming years.
"Microsoft has moved Poland from 'developing' to 'developed'," Wozniak notes. "That means that the discount for educational institutions is much lower than it was. And as schools here are always strapped for cash, they will be looking for alternatives."
Wozniak cites the example of the CyfrowaSzkola (digital school) project, run by the government, in which textbooks are digitised. "While not specifically focused on open source, it does have a strong open-software element," Wozniak says. Supplying schools with laptops for pupils is also part of the project, "and some of those laptops have Linux on board," he notes. The FWIOO has its own programme going in light of the CyfrowaSzkola project.
That kind of policy might eventually spill out to other sectors. Most institutions in Poland are on extremely tight budgets, meaning they could do without licensing costs. While open source is not necessarily less expensive when all the associated costs are taken into account, it does allow for much needed flexibility, which can in turn lead to savings, advocates like Wozniak argue.