University Rectors in Italy Promoting Proprietary Software

Last week's announcement from an Italian university group promotes students' use of MS products, available at steep discounts. What will this mean for FOSS in the Italian educational system?

Last Tuesday, published the final article in my seven-part series on how free software is being used in various Italian schools to the benefit of both teachers and students. Ironically, that same day, the Foundation of the Conference of Rectors of Italian Universities (CRUI) announced an initiative to allow all students in Italian universities "to use state of the art IT tools to study and prepare their exams", as stated on the Education page of Microsoft's Italian Web site. In case you are wondering what such tools may be, CRUI is talking about Microsoft Windows XP and Microsoft Office Professional Edition 2003. Italian students will be able to purchase these products with discounts of up to 80%; this translates to about 79.99 Euros for MS Office.

Although CRUI isn't an executive-level seller, it isn't a vanilla, corner computer shop either. According to that same announcement, the Foundation:

supports since 2001 the Conference of Italian Rectors with the goal of contributing to the cultural development of the Country, promoting the innovation of the national University system... A relevant part of its work is just about usage and diffusion of ICT in all areas of that system, from didactics to administration.

The press release explains that the Foundation is looking at this discount program with great enthusiasm, because it can contribute to the innovation of teaching, something which is "a determining factor to strengthen the competitivity of the whole University system". The discounts should facilitate this because, again according to the CRUI press release, "thanks to innovative solutions, Microsoft Office 2003 revolutionizes computer usage: creating documents like letters, projects and school researches, analyzing data, preparing multimedia presentations, sharing files and interacting with fellow students are only a few of the many activities that students can perform simply and quickly".

The simultaneous publication of this press release and my article on the benefits of using free software in the same university/school system isn't the only interesting part of the story. First of all, the language in the CRUI announcement is similar to that used on the page of Microsoft's Italian site that advertises the discount; even if you don't speak Italian, the correspondence is evident.

Secondly, two days after CRUI's release was published, two other announcements were issued simultaneously. The Linux User Group Roma criticized the Foundation's endorsement of the program because, although promoting state of the art IT tools is surely a laudable initiative, it should be based on pluralism instead of specific solutions from only one (proprietary) supplier. A few hours later, the CRUI Foundation published another press release titled "They Forgot the University" that denounces "the heavy cuts to the budget of the State University System announced for next year".

Predictably, the Italian FOSS community, beginning with its teacher members, is not pleased by CRUI's endorsement of Microsoft products. LUG Roma already has launched a petition to ask that:

  1. Free and Open Source Software is given equal status in all initiatives of CRUI and of the CRUI Foundation.

  2. CRUI promote activities that encourage the Italian University Community to participate in the development of Free Information Technologies--free as in freedom, of course.

The Italian teachers I interviewed for the Linux in Italian Schools series also are less than enthusiastic. The first fear of Giancarlo Dessi, the Slackware guru for the Professional Institute Cettolini, Sardinia, is that this announcement by CRUI will flatten even more the Italian IT culture on proprietary platforms and standard and keep it incomplete. Sophia Danesino, one of the architects of the e-learning portal of ITC Peano in Turin, is of the same opinion.

Making this kind of proprietary deal in primary schools, Dessi adds, would be questionable, but the damage could be limited. However, "at the University level, where IT knowledge should mean something more than just writing a letter with a word processor, it is harmful". From a strictly monetary point of view, he concludes, the whole thing sounds even more absurd. "Why not just tell students that there are software solutions whose licens[ing] costs are always null?" Personally, I would like to add that anything that can be installed and run decently only on new computers really isn't free, as in beer.

Francesco P. Lovergine and Francesco Loseto, the adult FOSS education experts in Bari, also are displeased. Lovergine hopes that, at least, this will be an occasion to expose and start solving a general problem. Today, he notes, software piracy is not only tolerated in Italian school and universities; sometimes, proprietary software much more expensive than MS Office is the only one that complies with the official requirements of mandatory exam projects. But, none of these companies offers discounts to students.

I also got some comments from other FOSS supporters in the Italian university community. Alessandro Rubini, the co-author of Linux Device Drivers who also worked as Contract Professor of Telecom and Networks Technologies at the University of Pavia, isn't surprised by the announcement. But, he notes that he was called to teach because he was competent, and he gained that competence thanks to unrestricted access to source code. Furthermore, while damaging to the reputation of the Foundation, promoting discounts on MS Windows often will be useless, as most students find it already installed when they buy computers.

Giulio Bottazzi, an Associate Professor of Economics who recently invited me to explain OpenDocument to the Sant'Anna Laboratory of Economic Management pointed out that market law forces Microsoft to maximize its profits. Therefore, the only reason why the company would reduce its prices when it still has almost complete control of this market is the fact that these students "won't remain students forever; they will grow, maybe graduate, become professionals, employees, business people". Because it's already almost impossible not to use computers on the job, if today's students are exposed only to proprietary technology, "they will be willing to pay very high prices to keep using it". So, there's nothing strange about Microsoft's wish to lock in its future customers, Bottazzi concludes, but "why should the University do the same? Above all, we should give our students the tools to choose, not choose for them!"

Renzo Davoli, Associate Professor of Computer Science at the University of Bologna and director of the Masters in Free and Open Source Software Technology program, published his opinion on the whole matter and sent to me this English version:

The Rectors have more important matters to attend, so I hope that this idea of transforming the CRUI Foundation website in[to] an advertising billboard is an isolated initiative of some lower grade official within the Foundation itself. In any case, it is important to remember that the Foundation is not an official speaker of the Italian Universities, like the National University Council, and its choices are not binding for any single institution. Consequently, this initiative is just a lapse of style which in my opinion should be corrected, since that page is self-denigrating at the eyes of anybody with a minimum of culture. For the same reason, I respect the action of LUG Roma against this initiative and I congratulate to them for their enthusiasm. However, it is neither a law proposal nor an official Government position, so it may be suitable to conserve one's energies for more important battles.

Waiting to See What Will Happen

I, too, think that it is highly probable that Foundation officers simply don't know yet that alternatives to Microsoft exist. My recent school articles have given me many first-hand confirmations that this still is the case, at least among Italian education professionals. Over the next few days, there surely will be time to establish direct contacts between the Foundation and the national FOSS community to discuss more actions on the same front. The purpose of this article simply is to encourage such future discussions by showing that many Italian educators already have the know-how to propose alternative solutions. In addition, I am asking all readers to help the Foundation. Please tell them, either by e-mail ( or through comments below, how FOSS is being used to great advantage in your schools and universities.

As always, I welcome any direct feedback and information on these matters. Thanks in advance for any such contributions, and thanks to all the professors who contributed to this article.

Marco Fioretti is a hardware systems engineer interested in free software both as an EDA platform and, as the current leader of the RULE Project, as an efficient desktop. Marco lives with his family in Rome, Italy.


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Update from the author: today CRUI promotes Free SW too

Marco F.'s picture


I have just been informed that, with the assistance of Professor Davoli, CRUI has added a page on "Free and Open Source SW (FOSS): a fundamental tool for Italian Universities", which explains what FOSS is, the main FOSS programs available for both GNU/Linux and Windows and which Italian Universities have FOSS-related Centers and Courses at several levels.

I'd just like to add my sincere congratulations to CRUI for offering a balanced view of all the software technologies and opportunities available to students and professors.

Best Regards,

Marco Fioretti

You mean promoting MS software, not proprietary software

Anonymous's picture

You mean that they are promoting MS software, not proprietary, don't you? Those two are not the same thing, despite however much MS marketing would like people to think so. MS is strongly against proprietary software that isn't their own. Just look at the backstabbing that they've done against Novell to get at Netware's market share and against IBM to get OS/2's.

Microsoft is very slick. It

Anonymous's picture

Microsoft is very slick. It seems that they're changing their tactics away from (publicly) threatening an audit and then offering "Software Assurance" and Licensing 6.0, like they did here with schools in the United States. Those Mafia-like tactics resulted in a major increase in K12LTSP's popularity, and they don't want a repeat of that episode. Thus, they now "offer discounts" and try to make themselves sound benign and benevolent.

Now they're deathly afraid of OpenDocument. I see this "discount" as an attempt to get Europeans locked into the Microsoft XML file formats before the EU gets around to mandating OpenDocument. Massachusetts has really gotten MS afraid...very afraid....

BTW, I am writing this on K12LTSP 4.2.1EL using the Konqueror browser. Works great!

Hooks, traps and holes

Anonymous's picture

Many of these MS press releases and derivative articles aren't addressing the extreme proprietary nature of the MSO 2003 formats. Nor do they address the various hooks into MS server-based services. Nor do they address the day to day practical problems presented by DRM, not to mention the aspects like increased vendor lock-in, loss of control over the data, and loss of privacy.

For a business, the loss of privacy means possible loss of trade secrets.
For a branch or the government, the problems are more severe.
Not to mention for education which has its own requirements and often works tightly with business and government ... ?

Tonisee's picture

One have 3 columns of data: time/date, value, abs. error of the value

Question: can one make a graph which displays values with error bars taken from 3d column? Using a) Excel, b) Calc?

If you don't know, try to follow this thread:
Issue 366

Tõnis Eenmäe, Linux/Unix user 10+ years

Maybe Calc cannot do the

Anonymous's picture

Maybe Calc cannot do the error bars as Excel do.
But we are talking about Universities. Neither Calc or Excel are good tools to professional, scientific, plotting of data. You will not see Excel produced plots among published articles (at least not in top-rated journals)

Use the right tool for each job.

There are very good tools for scientific plotting both propietary (Sigmaplot, Origin, Igor) AND FOSS: from simple things like prestoplot, salstat or kplot to Scigraphica, Grace or R.

Incorrect URL

Matteo's picture

Your link refer to an inexistent URL. Did you do correct html?


samael's picture

Gentoo 3.4.4-r1
Linux 2.6.14-gentoo-r5

Re: ?

Anonymous's picture

So what is your concern ? The issue is assigned to the responsible developer of the chart module. The RFE was not planned for the 2.0 release but it doesn't mean that it will never get implemented. If you're willed you can contribute to this module. is an open source project.