Microsoft dropped for open source: Why Hamburg is now following Munich's lead

Former Microsoft bastion Hamburg's decision is particularly telling, say observers.
Written by Cathrin Schaer, Contributor

The trend towards open-source software on government computers is gathering pace in Germany.

In the latest development, during coalition negotiations in the city-state of Hamburg, politicians have declared they are ready to start moving its civil service software away from Microsoft and towards open-source alternatives.

The declaration comes as part of a 200-page coalition agreement between the Social Democratic and Green parties, which will define how Hamburg is run for the next five years.

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It was presented on Tuesday but has yet to be signed off. The political parties in charge in Hamburg are the same as those in Munich, who recently agreed to revert back to that city's own open-source software.

"With this decision, Hamburg joins a growing number of German states and municipalities that have already embarked on this path," said Peter Ganten, chairman of the Open Source Business Alliance, or OSBA, based in Stuttgart.

He's referring to similar decisions made in Schleswig-Holstein, Thuringia, Bremen, Dortmund, and Munich. But, he adds: "The Hamburg decision is nevertheless remarkable because the city has always been more aggressively oriented towards Microsoft.

"In the future we will aim to have more open-source software in digital management [systems] and we also want to develop our own code, which will remain open," the head of the local Hamburg-Mitte branch of the Greens, Farid Mueller, wrote on his website. Hamburg wants to be a leading example of digital independence, he stated.  

City officials also want to try and gain more insight into proprietary software either through legal means or as part of city council tenders, Mueller added.

For his environmentally conscious party, this step is particularly important because such insight allows for a better analysis of energy use across digital services.

The city-state authorities would also develop their own versions of artificial intelligence. But this too must remain open, Mueller said in an interview in late May after coalition negotiations. "[Everybody,] from civil servants to the general public, needs to know how AI functions," he argued.

The "start of the exit from Microsoft", Einstieg in den Ausstieg von Microsoft, as Hamburg politicians describe the process, may well involve bringing in an open-source, cloud-based office system called Phoenix for use by Hamburg's local parliament. Any changeover will be voluntary to start with.

The OSBA says it's not a bad idea to start off slowly like this. "But in the long term, for the sake of costs, [user] acceptance and synergy, Hamburg should rely on a more uniform IT environment for most employees," Ganten argues.

That process needs to be carefully and cleverly managed and users in the civil service also need to be inspired about the new software, the OSBA chairman tells ZDNet.

In the near future, the preference for open source needs to be written into public tenders, and Hamburg will also need to coordinate efforts with other municipalities and states so as "not to reinvent the wheel over and over again", Ganten notes. "As has happened occasionally in the past."

The Phoenix software that Hamburg politicians are talking about is supplied by Dataport, a not-for-profit institution that operates under a government mandate to create open-source software for the German civil service.

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A spokesperson from Dataport, Britta Heinrich, tells ZDNet that Phoenix comes in the form of a number of different modules. So far, the messaging and video-conferencing modules are in use in a handful of educational institutes in Hamburg and in the state of Schleswig Holstein, where Dataport is headquartered, she says. Schleswig Holstein authorities decided to use more open-source software in 2018.  

Phoenix is based on a private cloud system that can be run off Dataport's own servers or a user's in-house systems.

The development and deployment of other office-friendly modules – Phoenix will eventually include word processing, accounting and calendars – has been delayed due to the COVID-19 pandemic, Heinrich explains.

"We envisage that things will proceed during the rest of this year though," Heinrich continues, noting that besides state authorities in Schleswig Holstein and Hamburg, Dataport was also in talks with various federal ministries.

"One of the basic ideas behind Phoenix is cooperation between different authorities. The survival of the platform will depend on how many people use and develop it. And that is what is special about this [the Hamburg decision] – the political signal that it sends," she says.

A spokesperson from Microsoft told German technology site Heise that the company didn't see the desire for more open-source software as an attack on itself. Microsoft now also uses and develops a lot of open source and welcomed fair competition, the spokesperson added. 

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