Is vendor lock-in costing Helsinki 3.4 million Euros per year?

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A report on the City of Helsinki's pilot project for the use of OpenOffice in the public administrations leaves the public with more questions than answers. The city trialled the Free Software productivity suite on the laptops of council members for ten months in 2011. The suite enjoyed high approval rates among its users. When the pilot was finished, the City produced a report stating that the costs of migrating the entire administration to OpenOffice would be very high.

"The City's report claims that it would cost EUR 3.4 million per year to run OpenOffice. This figure appears surprisingly high, and the report does not say how it was calculated," says Otto Kekäläinen", Finland coordinator of the Free Software Foundation Europe. "Without details, this figure seems baseless." Apparently, Helsinki's administration did not even contact major OpenOffice service providers to ask for their prices when preparing the report.

The City of Helsinki should answer the following questions:

  • How were the figures calculated? The City needs to provide details to make them credible.
  • How much of the migration cost is due to lock-in?
  • Which service providers were contacted to ask for prices?

Much of the purported high costs appear to stem from the fact that the City is locked into the products of a single software vendor. The City uses a large number of Microsoft products, and each of them makes it harder to replace any component of the city's IT infrastructure with programs from other vendors.

"The city should make it clear how much of the costs quoted in the reports stem actually from rolling out OpenOffice, and how much is merely the cost of breaking free from Microsoft's proprietary file formats and interfaces," says Kekäläinen.

It also appears that the pilot program suffered from a number of conceptual errors. For example, users involved in the pilot program did not receive training. Though support for Microsoft's latest proprietary file formats is normally included in OpenOffice, the version installed on the council members' computers did not support those formats. This meant that participants in the pilot program experienced problems exchanging data with the rest of the administration which users of the normal, full-featured OpenOffice version would not have experienced. Even so, most participants in the pilot projects declared themselves happy with the Free Software office suite.

"Many other cities have done before what Helsinki claims to be trying to do here", says Kekäläinen. "There are many good examples and helpful contacts out there, whether in Sweden, Munich or Spain. The experienced people there can help Helsinki achieve its Free Software goals a lot more quickly and at a lower cost."

FSFE has published an analysis of the report at

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President of the Free Software Foundation Europe since 2009. Promoting Free Software for a free society. Full-time multitasker and policy wonk. Prior to that, researcher at the United Nations University's MERIT institute in Maastricht, Netherlands. Investigating the social and economic effects of Free Software. Exploring Free Software as a tool for social and economic development.


I have seen a MSO->OOo->MSO loop in a 2000+ people ICT company. Besides user training on the new UI, the main obstacle to a full removal of MSO was the lockin caused by some applications. I.e they required some MSO DLLs for formatting output documents and printing them. The involved user base was large, and it was economically and technically impossible to rewrite all software. The vendor was not guilty for the lock-in, the company did it itself.

In the end, since an Enterprise Agreement was already being paid, keeping 100% MSO was way cheaper than buying the ~1000 individual licenses for users with lock-in applications.

No doubt the lock-in will present itself again in the future, when the DLLs and OS will evolve to a point they will not support anymore legacy APIs.

Myself I am happy with a terminal and, when needed, OOo. :-)

I too have seen the same problems in a very large ICT organisation. Even though their published policy is to use platform independent tools such as Firefox, Open/LibreOffice (or variations thereof), so many of their tools are Windows-centric, or their web-tools rely on Internet Explorer behaviour and ActiveX components.

One of the big problems in moving away from MSOffice is Macro lock-in, whereby macros in Excel or Word (written in VBA) use Windows-only facilities and/or are structured using language constructs that have not yet been mirrored in LibreOffice.

Of course, when writing macros in any of the Office-type suites, it would help transportability if
a) the macro writers used conditionals to separate platform-specific sections of the code and;
b) macro syntax parsers ignored the code bounded by these "alien" or "foreign" platform conditionals.

Until these very basic approaches to transportability are adhered to, this long-running saga of costs and difficulties moving to/from MS products, and supporting Windows/Linux/MacOSX etc will continue <em>ad infinitum</em>.

It strikes me that the City of Helsinki didn't do due diligence. Even with "MSO DLLs" and what have you, there is no way this move should cost 3.4 million.

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