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Linux in Europe

March 9, 2005

This article was contributed by Ladislav Bodnar

Two years ago Mandrakesoft was on the verge of bankruptcy and SUSE was trotting along with a 6-month release cycle and a shrink-wrapped software sales model. Now, Mandrakesoft is a profitable company, SUSE is part of Novell, and many large cities and regions of Europe are actively migrating to Linux-based solutions. Has the center of Linux adoption shifted from North America to Europe?

The widely reported decision of the European Council earlier this week to adopt software patent agreement highlighted the key difference between public participation in legal proceedings in the USA and Europe. While software patents were adopted in the USA without much publicity or protests, the European open source community has put up a strong fight and, at the very least, succeeded in delaying the adoption of the controversial law. It has mobilized many open source web sites to launch online protests against the patents, asked EU citizens to write to their legislators with explanations why software patents are wrong, and gathered a decent number of protesters, many of whom came from distant countries, in front of the EU Council in Brussels on the days when important decisions were being made. These actions not only resulted in several unscheduled trips by Bill Gates to Brussels to lobby for the speedy legalization of software patents, they have also attracted the attention of the mainstream European media.

As such, Europeans are probably more aware of the open source movement than citizens of most other parts of the world. SUSE especially has to be commended for maintaining their distribution agreements with many retailers around Europe. While practically all other distribution makers have abandoned the shrink-wrapped business model and rely exclusively on digital delivery of their software, SUSE Linux boxes continue to be available in book and software stores throughout Germany, Austria and most other European countries. In fact, walking into any medium-size news stand in Germany is like entering a Linux paradise, as you are likely to find perhaps a dozen Linux-related magazines in both German and English. Many of these magazines are regular monthly publications designed for Linux beginners, with friendly tutorials and easy explanations. This is in sharp contrast with the United States, where the only available Linux magazines are Linux Journal and Linux Magazine, both of which cater for senior system administrators, rather than general public. At present, there is no US-made printed magazine targeting Linux beginners.

Speaking about magazines, Poland's Software Wydawnictwo has emerged as one of the top open source publishers in Europe. It is currently offering a number of titles ranging from a general Linux magazine with a cover CD and DVD (Linux+) to specialist monthlies for PHP developers (PHP Solutions) and security topics (Hakin9). The publishing house also produces its own distribution (Aurox Linux), which it sells as part of the Aurox Linux magazine. All these publications are available not only in Polish, but also in German, French, Spanish and Czech, with more languages planned for the future. Recently, Software Wydawnictwo also launched a new title for the domestic market entitled "Linux w Szkole" (Linux in Schools), which leaves little doubt that Linux is already well-established in Polish educational institutions.

Mandrakesoft has emerged from its financial disaster two years ago rather nicely. It returned to profitability last year and has since been awarded two large contracts - one by the European Union and the other by the French Ministry of Education and Research. Its surprising acquisition last month of Conectiva, South America's oldest and best-known open source company might not be the only one; the recent trips of Mandrakesoft's CEO François Bancilhon to China and other countries seem to indicate that the company is looking around to further strengthen its position as a global Linux solution provider. Besides its successful range of Mandrakelinux products for the home user, Mandrakesoft has also been expanding into the corporate sector with its Corporate Desktop and Corporate Server editions.

Ubuntu Linux is another European project that has gained rapid momentum since its launch 6 months ago. The distribution has succeeded in creating large user communities in many European countries, as witnessed by several rapidly growing user forums and community web sites in Dutch, French, German and Spanish. Ubuntu has seemingly done everything right - as if they studied the mistakes of other similar projects and avoided them right from the start. Of course, the GNOME-centric distribution has the backing of a wealthy individual, but their work is still highly innovative, especially considering that no other distribution before has been able to build fully functional live CDs for PowerPC and AMD64 processors. With the upcoming release of version 5.04 next month, accompanied by a sister edition for the KDE fans (Kubuntu), the Ubuntu Linux user base is likely to grow even further.

No article about the European Linux scene will be complete without visiting Spain. Spain is one country that has gone further than any other in converting a large number of computers and users to Linux. It all started a few years ago by an initiative of the regional government of Extremadura (gnuLinEx) and spread like a virus to other parts of the country. Nowadays there are large areas of Spain where all school and public administration computers are running Linux exclusively! It is interesting to note that Spain has virtually standardized on Debian and Debian-based solutions and many of these regional initiatives are now forging closer ties with Ubuntu, which is seen as a more progressive project than Debian itself.

Other countries, regions and cities are, if not moving to Linux outright, doing feasibility studies or have set up pilot projects. Reports about the migration of Germany's Munich and Norway's Bergen have been well-publicized, but other large cities, including Paris, Rome and Vienna have also been in the headlines recently. It is likely that many smaller projects, both governmental and in the private sector, are under way without them wanting to raise any publicity. This is not only great news for Mandrakesoft, SUSE and Ubuntu, but also an opportunity for many smaller open source companies, such as the recently unveiled, Malta-based 2X Software, which is offering Linux-based terminal servers and thin clients for large-scale deployments. Many other small Linux companies are showcasing their solutions on this week's CeBIT exhibition.

All this evidence leads us to believe that Europe is now the undisputed leader in developing strategies for migration to Linux and open source software. In the process, it has created a vibrant open source economy, as well as a strong awareness among its population to resist controversial laws favoring large software monopolies and their commercial agendas. The tide is unstoppable. Let's hope that other regions will follow Europe's example.

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Minor distribution updates

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