Russia to drop Microsoft in quest for 'national' operating system

Russia says it hopes to switch all government and school computers from Microsoft's operating system to the open source Linux by the end of the year.

The Russian government has admitted that it's spending almost $5 million to develop a "national" operating system, based on the open source Linux OS.

It's a bid to rid state computers of Microsoft's Windows OS, and other proprietary software, with the stated goals of saving money, improving security, and reducing dependence on foreign software giants like Microsoft.

The trouble is, however, nobody has yet seen the new system, and some experts say they have no idea why it should be required.

"It's a very sensitive question," says Viktor Tsygankov, an analyst with the Russian branch of International Data Corporation, an IT consulting firm. "I don't really see how it's possible to make a 'national' OS based on the Linux kernel. Linux isn't Russian. And what stops us from using existing Linux systems? They are stable and work fine. This is just unnecessary, in my personal opinion."

Russia's Ministry of Communications ordered the switch, which is supposed to take place by the end of this year, three years ago.

That directive, however, went virtually unnoticed by the public until this week, when Russian newspapers reported that a Moscow computer science teacher, Vladimir Sorokin, had been forced to quit his job after writing a letter to Russian President Dmitry Medvedev complaining that his bosses were still compelling him to use educational software that required Microsoft products.

Reached by telephone Friday, Mr. Sorokin – who describes himself as a Linux expert – said he wrote to Mr. Medvedev after growing alarmed about the absence of any progress at all in providing and installing the open source software in school computers.

"We have to prepare students for exams using Windows and other closed products, when there is a clear state order saying that we must be using only free software beginning in 2011," he says. "I wrote to Medvedev because I recalled a speech he gave a few years ago, saying that if Russia didn't develop software independence, it would be vulnerable in all other areas. That really impressed me."

Software pirates

Sorokin says most Moscow schools were using pirated software until the state program was announced three years ago. As a stopgap measure, Moscow authorities purchased licenses for Windows and other programs being run on the city's school computers for three years, he says.

"If our computers are to be legal next year, we need the new open software," he adds. "We need to be ready by Dec. 31, but there are no materials, no preparations at all. Most teachers' reports are still in Windows format."

Sorokin says he was forced to resign by educational authorities after writing the letter to Medvedev. But on Friday, after a Moscow business newspaper, Vedemosti, wrote about the controversy, the principal of School No. 572 telephoned to say he might be reinstated.

"I was offered another job, to teach teachers," he says.

The Russian government has taken measures to control the country's freewheeling Internet, and the Duma recently passed a law that greatly beefs up the powers of the FSB security service, but experts say they don't see any security dimension in the kerfuffle over operating systems.

"There's no real logic to switching official computers to a Linux-based alternative," says Alexei Lukatsky, a Moscow-based IT consultant. "It was presented it as a means to lower costs and to be less dependent on American producers of software."'

Internet snooping

Under laws passed a decade ago the security service already runs a vast program, known as SORM-2, which requires all Russian Internet providers to install special devices that enable the FSB to copy and store every byte of information – including e-mail and Internet activity – that passes through Russia-based servers.

Microsoft was recently accused of assisting Russian authorities in selective prosecutions of nongovernmental organizations and independent journalists for alleged use of pirated software. After that story broke last month, Microsoft quickly moved to grant software licenses to all small Russian groups that might be targeted for political reasons.

Meanwhile, the whereabouts of the "national" operating system remains a mystery to most Russian educators and computer experts.

"The problems with this are just beginning," says Alexander Drakhler, deputy director of a Moscow computer school. "If they make students stop using Windows and switch to a Linux system, it will be a complete mess. Even a lot of existing official software programs can't work under Linux. Students who use Windows at home won't have any compatibility with what they do at school. It's fine to teach Linux, but you don't need to change every computer over to it," he says.

"If they wanted to do this, the state had to develop a quality product and, in a timely fashion, train teachers how to use it," he adds. "But nothing has been done."

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