Linux not Windows: Why Munich is shifting back from Microsoft to open source – again

Munich's flip-flop back to open source is the latest sign of Germany's political sea change over proprietary software.
Written by Cathrin Schaer, Contributor

In a notable U-turn for the city, newly elected politicians in Munich have decided that its administration needs to use open-source software, instead of proprietary products like Microsoft Office.

"Where it is technologically and financially possible, the city will put emphasis on open standards and free open-source licensed software," a new coalition agreement negotiated between the recently elected Green party and the Social Democrats says.

The agreement was finalized Sunday and the parties will be in power until 2026. "We will adhere to the principle of 'public money, public code'. That means that as long as there is no confidential or personal data involved, the source code of the city's software will also be made public," the agreement states.

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The decision is being hailed as a victory by advocates of free software, who see this as a better option economically, politically, and in terms of administrative transparency.

However, the decision by the new coalition administration in Germany's third largest and one of its wealthiest cities is just the latest twist in a saga that began over 15 years ago in 2003, spurred by Microsoft's plans to end support for Windows NT 4.0.

Because the city needed to find a replacement for aging Microsoft Windows workstations, Munich eventually began the move away from proprietary software at the end of 2006. 

At the time, the migration was seen as an ambitious, pioneering project for open software in Europe. It involved open-standard formats, vendor-neutral software and the creation of a unique desktop infrastructure based on Linux code named 'LiMux' – a combination of Linux and Munich.

By 2013, 80% of desktops in the city's administration were meant to be running LiMux software. In reality, the council continued to run the two systems – Microsoft and LiMux – side by side for several years to deal with compatibility issues.

As the result of a change in the city's government, a controversial decision was made in 2017 to leave LiMux and move back to Microsoft by 2020. At the time, critics of the decision blamed the mayor and deputy mayor and cast a suspicious eye on the US software giant's decision to move its headquarters to Munich. 

In interviews, a former Munich mayor, under whose administration the LiMux program began, has been candid about the efforts Microsoft went to to retain their contract with the city.

The migration back to Microsoft and to other proprietary software makers like Oracle and SAP, costing an estimated €86.1m ($93.1m), is still in progress today.

"We're very happy that they're taking on the points in the 'Public Money, Public Code' campaign we started two and a half years ago," Alex Sander, EU public policy manager at the Berlin-based Free Software Foundation Europe, tells ZDNet. But it's also important to note that this is just a statement in a coalition agreement outlining future plans, he says.

"Nothing will change from one day to the next, and we wouldn't expect it to," Sander continued, noting that the city would also be waiting for ongoing software contracts to expire. "But the next time there is a new contract, we believe it should involve free software."

Any such step-by-step transition can be expected to take years. But it is also possible that Munich will be able to move faster than most because they are not starting from zero, Sander noted. It can be assumed that some LiMux software is still in use and that some of the staff there would have used it before.

The Free Software Foundation Europe would like to see the Munich city council come up with a road map for achieving its goals, after the new council settles into office – maybe after 100 days or so, Sander says.

This new back-and-forth has already been criticized, both for the costs that it will entail, the time wasted and just the general indecisiveness. The "spinners in Munich" are trying to get a better deal out of Microsoft, one reader on a German tech site complained.

"This is a political rather than a rational decision," another suggested.

Basanta Thapa, a digital government expert at the Fraunhofer Institute for Open Communication Systems in Berlin, agrees that these decisions are political. "They're not purely technical and, in my opinion, that is not necessarily a bad thing," he says.

In technical terms, neither system is necessarily better than the other when it comes to contemporary usage, he tells ZDNet, pointing to various studies that have come to the same conclusion.

Usually there are two main sticking points, he says: user acceptance, which involves training people on new systems, and the interface between open and closed software. That can be anything from getting an Open Office document to read on another desktop, to programs that city councils have had written especially for, say, school registrations, tendering contracts or rubbish collections.

"There are also issues such as being locked into a contract that could eventually get more expensive," Thapa says, "and whether open source is less expensive in the long run, even if switching over incurs costs now."

So these kinds of decisions must come down to political philosophies about the marketplace as well as increasingly important issues like digital sovereignty. This issue is one reason why this time Munich is unlikely – or any other German city or state – to flip-flop on open-source software decisions again.

Commercial interests are at stake and political factions will continue to struggle with this issue but, as Fraunhofer's Thapa notes, "There's a different climate altogether around free open-source software." The discussion about how Germany, and Europe, achieve more 'digital sovereignty' is a big part of this.

Increasingly, German politicians recognize that many of their IT systems are too beholden to foreign brands like Huawei and Microsoft.

Also, in the decade and a half since Munich first started on this course, open-source software has become a worldwide trend. Where previously the LiMux program was something of a flagship model, now, thanks to its five-year hiatus, it's been overshadowed by other European cities like Barcelona, Madrid, and Paris, all of which operate their own ambitious projects in this area.

In Barcelona, for example, up to 70% of the city's IT budget goes toward free software and a whole ecosystem has evolved around local developers.

Germany has a lot of catching up to do, the experts suggest, even as big cities like Berlin, Dortmund, and Leipzig have started their own free software initiatives. 

A number of smaller German towns and municipalities – Leonberg in the state of Baden-Württemberg and Treuchtlingen in Bavaria are notable examples – have also forged ahead in this area although admittedly it's easier to migrate 40 desktops than around 15,000, as Munich did.

Sander notes that at their party conference in November last year, even Angela Merkel's normally conservative Christian Democratic (CDU) party set their sights on free software.

For future digital projects, "procurement and support will be bound by the principles of open source and open standards. Publicly financed software should serve all citizens," the party's statement said, echoing the Free Software Foundation's own campaign.

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Of course, that's only a statement of political intent, the Foundation's Sander notes. But if the CDU remains in power, that could eventually become the official position of the whole German government.

One current ministry, the Federal Ministry of the Interior, has already taken a similar line. It commissioned consultancy PwC to look into how Germany could achieve more digital sovereignty and become less dependent on vendors like Microsoft.

One of the August 2019 study's recommendations was investing in more open-source software. While outlining various challenges, the analysts also said, "Ultimately, this option may conceivably lead to permanent independence from major vendors."

It's worth noting that the politician in charge of that ministry is Horst Seehofer, a member of the same political party, the conservative Christian Social Union, as the former deputy mayor of Munich is, who is often perceived as one of the prime movers against the LiMux project there.

So far, it's more words than deeds, the Fraunhofer Institute's Thapa concedes. As yet, none of the big players appears to have lost significant business to the free software movement in Germany. But it seems likely that commercial vendors will have a tougher time here in the near future.

"I find it very exciting that Munich is back," Thapa concludes. "The door of opportunity is open again and maybe this time they will go all the way through." 

ZDNet has contacted Microsoft for comment and will update this article if there is a response.

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