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Is Something Rotten in the State of Freiburg?

By Katherine Noyes
Dec 10, 2012 5:00 AM PT

"You win some, you lose some," as the old saying goes, but rarely do the two occur nearly simultaneously.

Is Something Rotten in the State of Freiburg?

Sure enough, however, that's just what happened to open source software in Germany recently: It was being celebrated in Munich even as it was dumped in Freiburg.

"Linux brings over 10 million savings for Munich" was one side of the story.

The other side, however, was very different.

Namely, "German city dumps OpenOffice, switches to Microsoft" was that tale in a heartbreaking nutshell, causing more than a few furrowed brows here in the Linux blogosphere.

'It Is Indeed Suspect'

So baffling was the mystery, in fact, that one intrepid blogger decided to dig further as a way of understanding what had happened.

"Intended to Fail?" was the shocking title of the article summarizing his results.

"The move away from open source solutions by the German city of Freiburg didn't seem to add up," wrote Computerworld UK's Simon Phipps. "With some help from German friends I've dug into the report -- and it is indeed suspect."

Suspicion, high finance, intrigue -- this tale has it all. Here in the Linux blogosphere, FOSS fans haven't been able to talk about anything else.

'The Whole Situation Is Fishy'

"Intended to fail? I doubt it," Google+ blogger Linux Rants told Linux Girl, for example. "It looks more like it was never undertaken to begin with."

It's possible that "the paperwork was designed to look like something had failed, but the whole situation down to the numbers is fishy enough that I doubt there was ever any attempt made," Linux Rants said.

"The documents attribute every possible expenditure to the Open Source method, and absolutely none to the closed source system?" he added. "No, I see no evidence that convinces me that any attempt was ever made, designed to fail or not."

'Flawed from the Start'

Indeed, "Freiburg is a puzzle," blogger Robert Pogson agreed. "I don't see how any rational human could decide M$'s office suite from 2000 and from way back should be used in parallel in any office these days."

The test was "flawed from the start," in other words -- "keeping M$'s old office suite around guarantees nothing works with anything else. No PDFs, etc.," he added.

"They did put some effort into a lengthy analysis, but it's comparing apples to oranges all over the place and not accounting properly for the costs of that other OS and its office suite," Pogson charged. "It's as if some 'higher-up' commanded that a hefty report be written to justify the unjustifiable. I have no clue why that energy would be wasted when Munich is announcing success and documenting what it had learned in the process."

'Software That's Not Needed'

In any case, "any government these days should use open standards, and the best way to do that is to use GNU/Linux and FLOSS applications," Pogson opined.

"I've been using from its first release until LibreOffice arrived," he noted. "Since about 2003, was certainly able to do the job. LibreOffice of today makes the old version of seem quite antique.

"That's why Munich is switching to LibreOffice and Freiburg should do the same," Pogson concluded. "Why waste the taxpayers' monies on software that's not needed?"

'Some Deal with the Supplier'

There are "many good examples of municipalities, states, and countries' ministries changing expensive, heavy and closed proprietary software for free and open-source software," Google+ blogger Gonzalo Velasco C. agreed.

This move by Freiburg, then, "is more than odd," he said. "100 percent of the people that commented on the internet have said: 'Why didn't they move to the newest LibreOffice or OpenOffice!? It's insane!'"

A similar situation once occurred in "a certain ministry here in Brazil, where OpenOffice was pushed down the throat of the public servants, and they went back to MS Office a month later," Gonzalo Velasco C. noted. "What was that? Simple: lack of planning, talking, spreading the new technology in an appropriate way."

In any case, "I'll bet it's some market deal with the supplier," he concluded.

'Same Result, Different Goal'

"I wouldn't say it was planned to fail, but I would say it was planned bureaucratically, which has the same result but a different goal," consultant and Slashdot blogger Gerhard Mack offered.

"In the closed source world, updating versions is a much bigger deal, so I bet it didn't even occur to them they could do it, and there were likely bureaucratic obstacles to doing so," Mack said. "Imagine 20 years of policies designed around the existing way of doing things, only to have a new way come from nowhere and then trying to wedge them into their existing policies.

"Since that didn't work, they will change the software back rather than look at whether their policies need updating," he concluded. "This whole incident would make a fantastic new episode of the old British TV series, 'Yes, Minister.'"

'The Key Factor Is File Formats'

Freiburg did "many things wrong in its implementation, as the contrary example of Munich demonstrates," Google+ blogger Kevin O'Brien agreed. "But when you are dealing with office software, the key factor is always file formats."

Microsoft "essentially destroyed the credibility of ISO in order to force its formats on the standards group and avoid ODF," O'Brien explained. "Control of the formats has always been the key to Microsoft's dominance in this area.

"When people get an MS document and open it in LibreOffice, it may not display properly because of format differences," he pointed out. "And when this happens, people do not blame Microsoft even though they should; they blame LibreOffice and say that it is no good."

Bottom line: "I would recommend that the best strategy right now is not to insist on using LibreOffice, but to insist on using ODF," he suggested. "This should be an easier sell to governments, and when this is entrenched you can easily move to LibreOffice."

Katherine Noyes has been writing from behind Linux Girl's cape since late 2007, but she knows how to be a reporter in real life, too. She's particularly interested in space, science, open source software and geeky things in general. You can also find her on Twitter and Google+.

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