Open Source software: Munich 1, Freiburg 0

Munich has intelligently saved 10m Euros by switching from Microsoft Office to Open Office. By contrast, another German city, Freiburg, has at last abandoned attempts to migrate to Open Office after a long and painful process. Is open source software the problem? Hardly. It’s all about handling change. 

Much has been written about this – here, here and here (that last by Glyn Moody – a must-read), for instance, but what it comes down to, essentially, is grasping the magnitude of what’s involved in making such a change, and a willingness to see that process through. What’s more, Munich is offering to share its experiences with and extend support to any other public administrations looking to switch to open source.

A tale of two completely opposite approaches to significant change

The contrasts could not be greater. Munich recognised that migration from Microsoft Office to OpenOffice would require a realistic strategy and technical expertise – the salient phrase here being “ongoing and not an overnight switch“. One aspect of this was the creation of the LiMux project (there’s a very long and detailed by hugely informative article about LiMux on the European Commission website). The deputy head of LiMux, Florian Schießl, admits that the process took far longer and proved to be more complex than had originally been envisaged, but this was tackled through creation of a new strategy and a refusal to remain what Schießl calls “a happy slave”.

The city council decided at the same time to comprehensively reorganise its entire computer infrastructure in line with LiMux’ “Quality over time” motto…Converting all computers to the Open Document Format (ODF) standard has overcome dependency on a single office software suite.

Contrast this with the experience in Freiburg. To quote h-online,

In Freiburg, by contrast, after years of torment, the OpenOffice migration project has now been abandoned and the council is reverting to Microsoft Office. A switch from Windows to Linux in Freiburg was never even tried.

The article describes Munich’s approach thus:

The tangle of existing IT structures was tamed

but Freiburg’s thus:

problems were simply not resolved. Staff were expected to muddle through.

Open source software: a red herring?

Whether we’re talking new open source software or indeed any systems for IT, clocking in or the sandwich trolley, how can such an approach ever have stood a chance? There’s little more to say about Freiburg’s experience really, but h-online can sum up for us:

If there’s a lesson in all this it’s that migrating a core software tool such as an office suite doesn’t work if it’s done half-heartedly. It requires careful planning and has wide-ranging consequences and that means an initial capital cost. In addition, a project of this kind needs to get both users and the IT department on board – in Freiburg it appears to have failed on both counts.

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