Making Munich Microsoft again

Munich politicians probably don’t know that the German software industry is Microsoft's biggest competitor.

Munich
Swapnil Bhartiya

A lot has been written about this story so I am not going into detail. The TL;DR version is that the City of Munich is planning to ditch the vendor-neutral technologies that it adopted some ten years ago and go back to Microsoft. Steven J. Vaughan-Nichols has written a very good article on why Munich should not do that.

In addition to the points raised by Vaughan-Nichols, I can also see that Munich politicians are ignoring some things that are going to hurt the German economy. The IT infrastructure of the city of Munich primarily relies on three or four core components: an operating system, a productivity suite to create and manage documents, an email service or groupware solution and a cloud service to store and sync files across the organization.

What these Bavarian politicians probably don’t know, or are comfortably ignoring is that the German software industry is the biggest threat to Microsoft’s dominance in these core areas.

Please allow me to explain why.

The world’s second largest Linux vendor is a German company called SUSE, headquartered in Nuremberg, Germany, a city that’s mere 160 Km away from Munich. (More accurately, SUSE is now a subsidiary of the UK-based Micro Focus, but SUSE still operates as an independent unit of Micro Focus and it has a huge developer and executive base in Nuremberg.) SUSE not only develops the second most popular enterprise server operating system, SUSE Linux Enterprise, it also sponsors a free of cost, community driven operating system called openSUSE.

LibreOffice, a fully open source office suite, is the biggest competitor to Microsoft’s Office suite. LibreOffice also has an online version that offers an Office 365-like experience. The development of LibreOffice is governed by The Document Foundation. And do you know where TDF is based? Berlin, Germany.

When it comes to file store, sync and cloud services, nothing beats the fully open source solution Nextcloud, which is a totally vendor-neutral alternative to Microsoft's OneDrive. It’s founded by a German and is based out of Stuttgart, Germany.

Instead of using Microsoft Outlook, Munich could have used a fully open source and vendor-neutral groupware/email solution by Kolab Systems, which is based in Switzerland. Kolab Systems was founded by a group of companies to meet the demands of the German Federal Office for Information Security (BSI).

There is only one keyword that I see here: Germany. Germany. Germany!

It’s so ironic that I cannot even fathom what the Bavarian politicians are thinking. All of the core components that they need for their IT infrastructure were born in Germany. These are the world-class solutions that are challenging Microsoft’s dominance globally. But instead of going with these vendor-neutral, fully open source German solutions, Munich politicians wants to use closed source, vendor locked products from a U.S. company.

Why?

In addition to hurting the German software industry, the Bavarian politicians are making some grave mistakes by putting all of their eggs in Microsoft’s basket:

Loss of control: Instead of sticking to vendor neutral, standards-based technologies, Munich is going back to vendor lock-in and proprietary technologies controlled by a single US based company. In doing so, they are essentially giving up complete control over their data/infrastructure and handing it over to Microsoft.

Matthias Kirschner, president of Free Software Foundation Europe, told me that governments should use free software so they have more control over their infrastructure. "Administrations should be able to decide according to their citizens' needs, and not be limited by what software providers allow or disallow them to do. A government or, in general, administrations who cannot take decisions on their own about their IT, are not sovereign — which is a problem for democracy.”

Compromised security: No software product is immune to software bugs that lead to security holes. The best approach towards security is to respond as quickly as you can to contain the damage. Microsoft is infamous for delaying patches. In fact, they skipped the patches for the entire cycle this month.

If you're a conspiracy theorist, you might think that Microsoft delays patches so the government agencies it works with can exploit those vulnerabilities. The new Attorney General of the U.S. is a proponent of backdoors. Since Windows 10 is a proprietary technology, Munich can’t audit the code to look for backdoors or potential security holes.

Compromised privacy: Windows 10 is a privacy nightmare. It’s designed to collect as much data as it can on its users. In addition, because it's a closed source product there is no way for anyone to audit the code to ensure that no data is being siphoned.

The decision to go back to Microsoft products is a zero sum game for Germany. While Microsoft comes out as a winner, Germany is a loser.

If Munich stayed with vendor-neutral, open source solutions it would have created a very healthy ecosystem of developers who could have helped to further improve these products. Encouraging students to get involved with these products would have resulted in a more talented developer base to meet the growing demand for open source developers.

The greatest advantage for Munich would have been that they could have directly influenced the products that they rely on. You need a new feature? Just submit the code for that feature. You found a security bug? Patch it and submit changes to the upstream. None of this can be done with Microsoft’s proprietary software.

To justify the return to Microsoft products, the pro-Microsoft mayor of Munich, Dieter Reiter, chose Accenture, a company that was named Microsoft Alliance Partner of the Year in 2016. Even that report didn’t find any issues with the existing solutions.

As Vaughan-Nichols wrote:

Accenture, with every reason to recommend Microsoft products, said only between 18 percent and 28 percent of city users had software problems which could be solved by migrating to Windows and MS Office. But, at the same time 15 percent of users reported having severe issues with MS Office.

Despite these reports, Munich decided to go back to Windows. One primary reasons cited for switching back to Microsoft was around compatibility. Yes. COMPATIBILITY. I would have been surprised if there were no compatibility issues because you are expecting ‘compatibility’ with a family of products that doesn’t want to be compatible. According to Italo Vignoli, co-founder of The Document Foundation, Microsoft uses many tricks to break compatibility with competing products, which results in companies going back to Microsoft technologies. It’s a simple but effective strategy.

Instead of complaining about the so-called compatibility issues, which arose due to the use of non-standard technologies, Munich should have increased its investment in migrating to fully vendor neutral and open source technologies. That one-time investment would have been much cheaper than going back to Microsoft, and they would have retained complete control over their infrastructure.

Gerald Preifer, VP of products & technology programs at SUSE, told me, “This is less a question of Linux vs. Windows, or LibreOffice vs. Microsoft Office, but on properly setting things up and maintaining and supporting them over time.”

But instead of fixing the remaining compatibility issues, instead of ironing out the remaining wrinkles, the pro-Microsoft mayor chose to throw the baby out with the bath water.

With this move, the city of Munich is throwing away all the money that it invested in migrating to vendor-neutral technologies. They are now going to waste more money on going back to Windows. In addition, they will continue to waste more money on supporting these products and renewing licences and subscriptions.

Waste. Waste. Waste.

I really have no idea why anyone would ignore the world class software industry in their own backyard. I don’t understand why Bavarian politicians would ignore all security, privacy and ownership concerns. I fail to understand why these politicians would be willing to make their infrastructure hostage to a proprietary technology.

To paraphrase President Trump, I would say “The failing @CityOfMunich should fire both its mayor and its politicians. Seldom has a government been so wrong. Totally biased!"

The mayor of Munich may hit back: “Make Microsoft Great Again!”

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