University wastes millions on software for students

The University wasted money on Microsoft licensing when it could have supported free and open-source software.

Jason Ketola

The University wasted a whopping $2.7 million recently by purchasing licenses of Microsoft Office and Windows XP Pro for each registered student as Don Parris pointed out in his Sept. 15 letter. The opportunity existed for the University to distribute free software which would have liberated students from the endless cycle of increasingly expensive upgrades of proprietary software, but they chose not to take advantage of the deal. This problem is hardly limited to this particular university and is even becoming an issue in international development. Fortunately, however, there is recourse for individuals who do not want to fund near-monopolies like Microsoft.

As we speak, Microsoft is preparing to pay up to $174.5 million in settlement fees as a result of a class-action lawsuit brought by Minnesota consumers. It’s dumbfounding that the University would elect to divert students’ money to this company convicted of unfair competition practices when viable alternatives exist.

The New Economic Partnership for African Development (NEPAD) is also guilty of wasting money. This development program of the African Union has partnered with Microsoft to purchase hundreds of thousands of licenses of Microsoft products for its eSchools initiative designed to get computers into schools.

Loans from the World Bank and International Monetary Fund which might have been spent elsewhere are instead being used to increase profits for the U.S. corporation. New loans or grants will be required to upgrade software as it becomes obsolete.

This is not the case with the free alternatives that exist. Let’s get to them now.

These alternatives include the office suite OpenOffice.org. Versions are available for Windows and Linux at the Web site indicated by its name, and a version for Mac OS is available at www.porting.openoffice.org/mac. OpenOffice.org includes word-processing and presentation programs similar to Word and PowerPoint that students use often and it can create and modify files in Microsoft formats.

In his letter, Don Parris noted that the state of Massachusetts has officially adopted the OpenDocument format for all its state documents. OpenDocument is a publicly accessible standard not restricted by copyrights. The purpose of this move is to preserve the sovereignty of the information. OpenOffice.org supports the OpenDocument format. Microsoft does not.

An alternative to the operating systems Windows XP and Mac OS, called Linux, also exists and is growing in popularity. Numerous versions of the operating system, called distributions, are available for free download. Each distribution comes packaged with different sets of software and is tailored to specific purposes, such as Web servers or for home users.

Distributions like Ubuntu (www.ubuntu.com) and Mandriva (www.mandriva.com) are popular and are becoming increasingly easier to install and maintain. The number of tutorials and guides on the Internet designed to help new users are far too numerous to catalog here.

Linux and OpenOffice.org are examples of free and open-source software, FOSS for short. By definition, open source software includes the programming code that went into the product and is made available for modification by others. It’s part of a greater movement to help to keep Internet and computing technologies in the hands of the end-user and out of the control of large corporations.

The free and open source software model does not restrict its users to the limitations that their software puts on them; if they see a need for improvement and have some technical know-how, they can add the new features that they desire.

Free and open source software is growing quickly in popularity. Countries all over the world have adopted programs including Linux

and FOSS on the government level. These include but are not limited to: Germany, Brazil, India, South Africa, China, Russia and South Korea. The International Open Source Network (www.iosn.net) run by the United Nations Development Programme supports the use of FOSS by developing nations to help them achieve rapid and sustained economic and social development.

Software activists in South Africa have developed the “Freedom Toaster,” a kiosk which lets individuals freely burn copies of free, open source software and operating systems; they just have to provide a blank compact disc. These kiosks are popping up at malls, libraries, and universities across the country.

The primary reasons people aren’t running to this type of software en masse are that they either don’t know about it or they see it as too difficult to use. The difficult problem is being improved on the software side every day, but issues are still bound to arise. These issues should not stand as a barrier to students who want to make the switch.

I have encountered many different students at the University who use Linux and other free and open source software, and who consistently tend to disparage the continued support of Microsoft by students and others who don’t know that they do indeed have other, less expensive and more flexible options.

A great opportunity exists for these individuals to start a student group designed to help individuals on their way to using FOSS. Just by having a support system through a monitored discussion board on the Internet and maybe a few office hours during the week, many people could be freed from the wallet crunching clutches of Microsoft.

These are services which should be provided by the University in the interest of supporting a democratic model of software development. By spending $2.7 million on Microsoft licenses, the University missed a golden opportunity and in the process unnecessarily wasted its students’ money.

Jason Ketola welcomes comments at [email protected]