by Edward Qualtrough

Decoding the Orwellian ‘doublethink’ around Munich’s open source switch

Aug 20, 20144 mins
GovernmentIT LeadershipMobile Apps

“Who controls the past controls the future; who controls the present controls the past,” wrote George Orwell in his much-quoted dystopian classic 1984.

The German city of Munich’s decade-long migration to its own open source Linux operating system probably isn’t what Orwell had in mind when discussing the Party’s focus on ‘reality control’. Or as they called it in Newspeak: ‘doublethink’.

But having an unending series of victories over your own memory is a good way of following the Bavarian capital’s struggles in its move away from Windows NT 4 to its custom-built LiMux distribution.

In December 2013, former deputy mayor Christine Strobl announced that Munich’s switch had finally been completed successfully, and that the vast majority of the users and administrators working on the 14,800 LiMux workspaces had been familiar with the OS for some time.

This week, however, the deputy mayor of Munich, Josef Schmid, claimed that employees were “suffering” and that “we have to change” and possibly go back to Windows. Schmid, a member of the Christian Socialist Union, bemoaned his own user experience in not having access to a “unified program for emails, contacts and appointments” in a post-Outlook world.

Mayor Dieter Reiter, also from former deputy Strobl’s Social Democrat Party, found applications lagging, and had to wait days for administrators to set up an external mail server so he could receive emails on his smartphone. Reiter, it must be noted, is a self-confessed Microsoft fan who worked behind the scenes on a deal which will see Microsoft relocate its Germany headquarters to Munich – a massive boon for the Bavarian capital.

But I also remember April 2012, when former mayor Christian Ude said that the number of monthly complaints to the IT desk had drastically reduced during the switch to LiMux, as he lauded the €11.7 million the city had saved through the project.

The number of complaints was 70 per month before the beginning of the migration, Ude said. After the number of LiMux workplaces increased from 1,500 to 9,500, the maximum number of complaints per month dropped to 46. This left Ude to conclude that the decline in complaints was due to the migration to LiMux.

Furthermore, Communications and Change Manager for Munich and the LiMux project, Kirsten Böge, said that as of March 2012 10,000 systems were running LiMux with all PCs equipped with OpenOffice, Firefox, mail client Thunderbird and image editing software Gimp.

Böge had said that it was her remit to manage the change as “an IT evolution rather than a revolution”, with her mission to “take the employee to hand and address the fear of change”.

So assuming Ude and Böge are telling the truth about the take-up and reduced number of complaints using LiMux, is there a case to not believe the current officials?

Needless to say, comments on the German newspaper Süddeutsche Zeitung are heavily critical the current mayor and his deputy.

Many are crying foul over Reiter’s ties to Microsoft, and open source advocates laughed at Schmid’s addiction to Outlook, while suggesting a Google search would explain to him that Thunderbird is an apt alternative that could be installed with two add-ons – although don’t we also remember from Böge that this is already installed? Others poured scorn on the IT administrators in Munich who were unable to set up the new mayor’s phone.

And as the latest appearance of the Munich open source story is currently focused on the anecdotes of whoever the most popular city officials are rather than evidence, the LiMux project leader Peter Hofmann and the system’s actual users have been conspicuous in their silence. However, one city employee’s insights into using the LiMux clients, which were posted on the Süddeutsche Zeitung, are of particular note.

“It’s not such a big punishment; much of the criticism of the system is simply irrelevant,” they said.

“Someone finds a function in OpenOffice doesn’t work, and Linux is to blame! The installed Firefox browser is outdated, what can Linux do about it? System faults under Windows were quite common before 2004 in my department. The base client is actually quite stable.

“And as a taxpayer I am afraid the city council’s operating system will be replaced in future by paid software. I shudder at the thought that all users migrate back to Windows and MS Office, instead of worrying about the problems of the citizens.

“From my perspective, you have achieved success here – why chuck that in the bin?”