By Stefan Smith
Tehran - Iran has become the latest country to edge towards ditching the ubiquitous Microsoft computer operating system in favour of the open-source Linux solution, even if its refusal to abide by copyright laws means that the Islamic republic does not pay a penny to Bill Gates.
According to Mohammad Sephery-Rad, the man in charge of the Islamic regime's computer systems, long-term political and security considerations have sparked a major initiative to make the switch.
"All the software in Iran is copied. There is no copyright law, so everybody uses Microsoft software freely," said the secretary of Iran's High Informatics Council.
"But we cannot continue like this much longer," he said.
The reason has nothing to do with the guilt of using pirated software (a cracked Windows XP CD costs the same as a blank CD), but more pragmatic considerations - not least because of the irony that Iran's information technology (IT) backbone is based on software from its arch-enemy, the United States.
Firstly, Iran is trying to gain entry into the World Trade Organisation (WTO), a step that would entail respect of international intellectual property laws.
"We would have to pay a lot of money," said Sephery-Rad, noting that most of the government's estimated one million personal computers (PCs) and the country's total of six to eight million computers were being run almost exclusively on the Windows platform.
"Secondly, Microsoft software has a lot of backdoors and security weaknesses that are always being patched, so it is not secure. We are also under US sanctions. All this makes us think we need an alternative operating system."
Even users of pirated Windows software can download patches and updates, but as piracy control techniques improve that could change - meaning the Islamic regime's computers could be caught with their pants down.
The alternative selected is Linux - an operating system adapted by computer makers and other users to meet their own specifications.
Derived from the Unix system by a Finn, Linus Torvalds, it has become one of the biggest competitors of Microsoft, even if Windows is still used on nearly 90 percent of the world's computers.
Whereas Microsoft's code is a closely-guarded secret, the Linux core code - or Kernel - is the subject of ongoing development and is available for free download and adaptation, hence the term "open-source".
"Our strategy is to have the option to change over if we have to. We need to have a solution that is ready, otherwise one day we may be caught with our hands in the air," Sephery-Rad told AFP in an interview.
"Then we will try to convince people it is the best option. We want to switch over as much as we can."
Around the world, several governments have been embracing Linux as a way to save money, break free from Microsoft's virtual monopoly and evade the daily barrages of viruses that bombard Windows systems.
Linux advocates also tout what they say is superior stability, fewer crashes and those "Blue Screens of Death" that drive many Windows users to despair - hence the already widespread use of Linux in server applications.
"Microsoft is a national security concern. Security in an operating system is an important issue, and when it is on a computer in the government it is of even greater importance," said the official.
"Even with Linux, security is an issue - but maybe less so."
But if there is one weak point with Linux, it is user-friendliness when ported to the desktop. Sephery-Rad acknowledged that you may not need to be a geek to use Linux, but it certainly helps.
"It is very promising. Students and universities are showing great enthusiasm, but for older people it is difficult," he explained, adding that graphical environments such as KDE or Gnome were getting close to matching the easy task manipulation that a Windows-based PC provides.
"It is not as easy as we thought. We will have to get people used to changing over. People are used to using Microsoft, so we'll need courses and seminars."
Iran's Linux initiative is now three years old, but the idea is beginning to catch on. A Farsi-language Linux "Live CD" - a preview that does not interfere with a computer's hard drive - has just become available in what is the first concrete step to a changeover.
Sephery-Rad, who also works as a physics professor, said the project should really get going in the next two to three years, with inspiration coming from similar efforts in Latin America, Europe and East Asia.
"Most people have come to the conclusion that sticking to an operating system controlled by one company is dangerous," said Sephery-Rad.
"Microsoft is like having a car where the bonnet is welded shut." - Sapa-AFP