Vienna's Municipal Authority is pushing ahead with plans to provide Linux as a desktop alternative to Windows for thousands of employees this year, according to an official.

Brigitte Lutz of the municipality's Computer Centre this week revealed more details about a plan initially reported in August, which will give 7,500 of Vienna's 16,000 desktop users the option to switch to a Debian-based Linux distribution, according to reports from several German news outlets, including computer magazine C't.

Wienux, as the Vienna Linux system has now been named, is based on Debian using the Linux operating system kernel version 2.6.9-1, the Firefox Web browser and KDE 3.3 as the graphical user interface, Lutz said at the Open Source Business Conference 2005 in Vienna. The system includes OpenOffice version 1.1.3, the open-source version of Sun's commercial StarOffice suite, originally developed in Germany.

However, Vienna is taking a cautious approach - even those employees who choose to switch this year will still be using Microsoft Office 2000 and will be accessing their Outlook email via a Web browser, Lutz reportedly said. OpenOffice may later replace Office 2000 for some users, she said.

Vienna is carrying out the desktop Linux migration as a test this year, and will evaluate the results of the experiment in 2006. The city isn't planning to buy any new hardware for the transition, and expects to spend only about 1.1 million euros on the project over five years. Much of Vienna's server infrastructure already runs Linux.

The Austrian capital is only one of hundreds of European public authorities investing in open source in an effort to reduce their dependence on a single software vendor. Provisional results from a study currently in progress at the Maastricht Economic Research Institute on Innovation and Technology (MERIT) found that countries with clear and centralised open-source policies had relatively high rates of open source use in local authorities. Seventy-one percent of local authorities in France use open source, 68 percent in Germany and 55 percent in the Netherlands.

In the UK, relatively few public authorities use open source - 32 percent - which the study's authors theorise is a result of a lack of clear policy guidance. In October a report from the Office of Government Commerce (OGC) gave a cautious welcome to open source, but the same body extended its three-year agreement with Microsoft by another three years.

Microsoft has several initiatives underway to improve its image with the public sector, including a programme giving governments access to Windows source code. Recently the software company said it would change the licensing terms for Office document formats so that the US city of Boston could continue to use Office under an "open standards" policy.

Open-source vendors are attempting to loosen Microsoft's grip on the desktop with improved Linux desktop software and open-source, open-standards replacements for Microsoft products. Novell, for example, recently launched a revamped Suse Linux desktop and said it would port the Exchange-compatible Evolution mail client to Windows.

Public bodies who made significant open-source moves in the past year include the city of Bergen, the German Federal Finance Office, the French Ministry of Equipment, the city of Paris, the city of Munich, Rome's City Council and the Australian Government Information Management Office