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Munich Ditches Linux. Here's Why Open Source Fans Shouldn't Worry

In a setback for open source software, Munich, Germany will migrate its Linux PCs back to Windows. However, compared to open source's bigger successes, the announcement seems relatively insignificant.

Linux fought Windows, and Windows won. That, at least, is the story in Munich, Germany, where a decade-long effort to replace closed-source software in government with open source alternatives has petered out.

Munich's experiment with open source software for municipal government use originated in the early 2000s, when city officials began assessing the potential benefits of dumping Microsoft software in favor of an open source alternative.

Even a visit to the city by erstwhile Microsoft CEO Steve Ballmer failed to dissuade the municipality. In 2003, the city decided to begin migrating most of its computers to LiMux ("Linux for Munich"), an Ubuntu-based Linux distribution.

By 2013, the city announced that it had succeeded in migrating about 15,000 of its 18,000 workstations to LiMux. In addition to replacing Windows with Linux, the migration switched most of the city's workers from Microsoft Office to OpenOffice, the open source word processor and office productivity platform.

Munich forged a path that a number of other government agencies followed, especially in Europe. The French national police adopted their own derivative of Ubuntu. The British national government warmly embraced open source. The Italian defense ministry switched from Microsoft Office to LibreOffice, another open source office suite.

Even the U.S. government in recent years has undertaken efforts to become more open source-friendly.

Moving Back to Microsoft in Munich

Despite the momentum that open source solutions have gained within government agencies since Munich's pioneering decision to embrace Linux in 2003, the city has now switched course. It recently announced plans to migrate all of its Linux computers back to Windows by 2020.

It appears likely that the city will move back to Microsoft Office, too (even though OpenOffice runs on Windows as well as Linux).

The city's rationale was that Linux-based computers are not compatible with some applications that city employees need -- although a 2016 study by Accenture found that the city's main problem was what DevOps advocates would call a deeply siloed IT operation, not Linux compatibility issues.

At any rate, Munich's decision would seem to be a setback for proponents of the open source revolution, who would like to see the world powered entirely by open source.

Linux Fans, Fret Not

That said, as an open source advocate myself, I wonder if the Munich decision is really as disappointing as it might appear.

In 2003, when Munich announced plans to adopt Linux, the open source ecosystem looked very different than it does today. While a handful of major open source projects existed, such as Linux and the Apache HTTP server, most software frameworks remained closed source.

For that reason, most people didn't use open source at all. If they did, they did so very consciously, and adopting an open source platform was a big deal.

Fast forward to the present, however, and open source is all around us -- indeed, you could say it is inescapable. Open source code is built into a huge number of business applications. Open source is the "default" approach to software development. Open source platforms like Android are used on a daily basis by hundreds of millions of people, whether they know it or not.

In this context, the decision of a local government to use desktop Linux seems less significant. Open source is now frying much bigger fish. It doesn't need to run on the workstations of local-government functionaries in order to prove its mettle.

Sure, Munich's decision to move away from Linux is something of a setback. But it seems like a pretty small deal compared to open source software's much bigger successes.

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