Tomorrow's News

Article from Issue 206/2018

When I started working for this magazine, way back in 2004, Linux was really picking up momentum. That was back in those years when every year was supposed to be "the year of the Linux desktop," and the epic Linux vs. Windows battle was revving to a full burn.

Dear Reader,

When I started working for this magazine, way back in 2004, Linux was really picking up momentum. That was back in those years when every year was supposed to be "the year of the Linux desktop," and the epic Linux vs. Windows battle was revving to a full burn.

One of the best examples of the Linux juggernaut was the city of Munich, which declared it would be transitioning all its computers to Linux in 2004. We at Linux New Media were particularly excited about this move because, at the time, the world headquarters of our small company was located in Munich, and our German colleagues were part of that groundswell of Linux support that launched the transition.

Over the years, the City of Munich worked hard on Linux integration, even maintaining their own Linux distribution (LiMux, an Ubuntu derivative) and building their own LibreOffice extension set (WollMux). The move to Linux was officially completed in 2013, but the solution still never really settled in.

Now, 13 years after the announcement that Munich was switching to Linux, they have decided they are switching back to Windows. The move has been brewing for some time, with city officials signaling it might happen for a couple years.

What happened with Linux in Munich? It depends on who you ask. In a blog post earlier this year, Björn Schießle of the Free Software Foundation Europe wrote, "In 2014, Dieter Reiter was elected new mayor of Munich. He had referred to himself as 'Microsoft fan' even before he took office. He prides himself with having played a major part in the decision to move the Microsoft Germany headquarters to downtown Munich. He started to question the LiMux strategy as soon as his term started, and asked Accenture, a Microsoft partner in the same building as Microsoft, to analyze Munich's IT infrastructure."

According to Accenture's study (and to other observers), the problems with Linux in Munich were mainly organizational – not technical. Another issue identified by Linux critics was the amount of city-government-related application software that simply wouldn't run on Linux, which meant that the city found itself in the position of doing its own software development. (This, again, is not really a problem with Linux, but with the habits and priorities of the software development industry.)

It probably would have helped if more cities had joined Munich to spread the brainshare for development and implementation knowledge. But then, the battle is never really over as long as a well-funded opponent has a stake in turning the tables. Environmental groups and historical preservation groups have encountered the same scenario: Non-profit communities can turn out lots of people with big hearts to wave placards, but a huge corporation can unleash an army of lobbyists and marketing professionals who keep chipping away at public opinion when everyone else has gone back to their day jobs.

Software has no shape or solid edges. The value of a software product is simply what whoever owns it says they will charge you for it. If you try to buy a Windows desktop system as a single user, you get one price. If you buy a large number of licenses, you get a different price, depending on how much Microsoft wants to close the deal. In the case of Munich, Microsoft really really really didn't want to see this major European city become a test case for Linux adoption.

Ultimately, though, one city flipping back to Windows isn't such a big victory for Microsoft – or a big defeat for Linux. Is a city government really the best place for Linux to make its mark? Linux is secure and efficient, and it will save you money, but you have to tune in to it – you have to make a real effort to make it work in a world where Windows is still very much the default for non-technical users.

Linux has all kinds of success stories in the corporate sector, where energy and innovation translate more fluidly into profit and career advancement. Companies like Red Hat, SUSE, Canonical, and IBM make billions of dollars installing Linux systems (including Linux desktop systems) in Fortune 500 companies around the world. On the server side, Linux is stronger than ever, and even Microsoft has to acknowledge the importance of Linux to the booming cloud and container business.

But really, regardless of how Munich or any other city chooses to spend their IT budget, the truth is, all the things we were fighting about back in 2004 were settled long ago. Desktop operating systems aren't as important as we used to think they were. Microsoft doesn't think Linux is a cancer anymore (in fact, they say they love Linux), and everyone in IT is aware of the power and importance of Free Software.

Like many in the Linux community, I have a feeling the people of Munich are going to spend a lot more money in the long run by climbing back into the proprietary software time machine, but hey, that's tomorrow's news.

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