20 anni di storia [di parte] del software libero in Italia
20 years of [an aspect of] the history of open source software in Italy
Angelo Raffaele Meo
  • This story is partial, not only for ideological reasons, but also because limited to the events I had the opportunity to observe in my restricted field of vision. It began exactly 20 ago, when I was appointed director of the Supercomputing Centre in Piedmont (CSP).
  • I was not very enthusiastic about the idea, because the first task of the CSP was management of a CRAY Y/MP supercomputer and I was opposed to such an expensive outlay.
  • I wrote an article for Media 2000 entitled: "An elephant to crack a nut''.
  • I explained that an elephant is perfectly capable of cracking a nut but is too expensive for such a humble task, which can be done efficiently and economically by a troop of squirrels.
  • In short, I thought the "supercazzola", as I called it, was merely a business opportunity for someone and that its use could not justify the cost.
  • It was the chairman of the Regional Authority, Gian Paolo Brizio, who convinced me to take on the job, explaining that our task was not so much management of the supercomputer as opening a "window on the fascinating world of ICT".
  • So I accepted and I am glad I did, because it was an unforgettable experience, thanks to the professionalism and enthusiasm of my collaborators on the project.
  • We all immediately became fascinated by the Internet, and put so many resources into it that some years later we became the fourth largest Internet Provider in Italy.
  • We also collaborated with external personnel. For example, my daughter Roberta, suitably subsidized by me, spent her Sunday afternoons transmitting real time news updates of Italian sports to the world, using a tool called "Gopher", which would a few years later become the basis of the first browser.
  • We received messages of thanks from as far away as Australia.
  • A couple of years later, in Olivetti, we installed on an Echos PC a modem emulator and the software required to obtain a connection to an Internet Service Provider. With only the cost of the cable connecting the pc to the telephone socket, users could automatically connect to the Internet.
  • In spring of '95 I showed the prototype to the designers at Olivetti, together with the navigation functionalities of the first browser just released, and connecting in real time with my daughter Michela, who was visiting an American university.
  • The project managers of the new line of computers were enthusiastic and decided to show the proposal to the CEO. I would have liked to present the idea personally, but they explained: "there are three ways to ruin yourself. The most pleasurable is with women, the quickest is gambling, the surest with engineers".
  • The CEO's answer when it came was laconic: "There is no future in the Internet".
  • It was Roberto Borri, the leader of the brilliant young team who worked with me, who first told me about the revolution represented by open-source software.
  • It stood to reason that those who were passionate about the Internet would also be passionate about open-source software.
  • Indeed the Internet can be considered as both the mother and child of open-source software: mother, because the Internet made possible the creation of communities of developers; child, because the principle of sharing knowledge is the basis of the IETF's work and of open-source software.
  • My enthusiasm prompted me to propose a national research programme to the then Minister for Universities and Research Luigi Berlinguer.
  • I circulated my learned document (little did I know!), which was much criticized by no less a legendary name in Italian open-source software than Alessandro Rubini.
  • He had begun working on Linux and its drivers in 1994, right after taking his degree at the university of Pavia, but he was not the first in Italy to take up the cause of open-source software.
  • A few months earlier the Pluto project was set up by Franco Bombi and Giuseppe Zanetti at the university of Padova.
  • In any case, his work was fundamental, both from a scientific-technical and political-organizational point of view.
  • Alessandro criticized my article especially because it did not emphasize the importance of the source code and for its confusion of the concepts "freeware" and "free software", showing my ignorance of Richard Stallman's sacred principle: "Free as in free speech, not as in free beer".
  • The guru from Pavia was right.
  • So I set to study and in 2001, together with my colleague and fellow citizen of Cuneo the sociologist Mariella Berra, I wrote "Informatica solidale" (Fair trade IT) published by Bollati Boringhieri.
  • Lucio Stanca, a minister in the second and third Berlusconi government, read the book, which he called "Meo's Little Red Book" and called me in 2002 to chair a commission investigating the opportunities provided by open-source software for local and central public administration.
  • In May 2003, at the end of a laborious process, the commission delivered its conclusions and proposals, from which the minister Stanca drew up in December 2003 a major directive, which became legislative decree 82/05, better known as the "Digital Administration Code".
  • The substance of the directive and legislative decree was to force public administrations to base the choice of an IT solution on a comparative technical and economic assessment which must include open-source software, favouring solutions that enable interoperability and cross-application use by different IT systems used by the public administration.
  • It was further recommended that IT systems must not be provided only by a single supplier or a single proprietary solution; the source code must be available for inspection and traceability by the public administrations; finally, the data and documents must be exportable in several formats, including at least one open-source type.
  • In my opinion, if the Stanca directive, Digital Administration Code and the regional laws passed in Tuscany, Umbria, Veneto and Piedmont were actually implemented, open-source software would play a central role in the IT systems of the public administration, with enormous economic benefits for the entire country.
  • Unfortunately, Italy is known for its strict and wise laws, and for the way they are ignored, and these regulations were no exception.
  • In fact, they were paid even less than the normal lip service. For example, ASSOLI, the association for open-source software, through its chairman, the lawyer Marco Ciurcina, took court action to obtain the annulment of a very costly tender that discriminated in favour of proprietary products.
  • Unfortunately, these associations for open-source software do not have the human or economic resources needed to contest the many tenders called by central or local public administrations, including the principal ministries.
  • In an attempt to tackle the problem of lack of implementation of the regulations favouring open-source software, in May 2007 minister Luigi Nicolais of the Prodi government set up a second commission, once again chaired by me.
  • The objectives of this commission were to analyze the European and Italian sector scenarios, to define operational guidelines to support administrations in procurement of open-source software, and to analyze the "open-source" approach to facilitate application co-operation, interoperability and reuse.
  • Alas (yet again), the short life of the Prodi government ended a few weeks after delivery of the new commission's report, and the new minister stated that the question of open-source software was of no interest to him.
  • We hoped that with the advent of the Monti government the question would move back up the agenda, as it had in the time of minister Stanca.
  • With this hope in mind, at the insistence of friends of our associations, I immediately wrote a letter to prime minister Monti and to the ministers Profumo and Patroni Griffi, reminding them that an intervention in favour of open-source software would have the rare effect of reducing spending and simultaneously promoting development.
  • Two months have passed and to date there has been no sign of an answer.
  • It is easy to understand that given the current economic scenario these people have no time to reply to me. However, it seems to me that promotion of open-source software is much more important than liberalization of taxis and rickshaws, and that to promote development it is fundamental that annual investment in research should be brought to at least the level of the European average.
  • To console me in my disappointment, my friend Giorgio Giunchi, paraphrasing the conclusions of one of my articles, told me: "Insist, Insist, Insist".
  • I will insist, or better, we shall insist.
Happy Birthday ISOC