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Why Barcelona’s anti-Microsoft move to open source could be a disaster

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Catalans are known for their independent nature, but sometimes that independence is a decade too late. Take, for example, the City of Barcelona's decision to target "full technological sovereignty" by dumping Microsoft on its 7,800 PCs and replacing Microsoft software with Linux, LibreOffice, and more. While the move is fraught with peril—just ask the City of Munich which is now reversing its decade-long attempt to make a Linux desktop work, spending tens of millions to move back to Windows by 2020—it's also unnecessary.

After all, the Great Satan that Barcelona hopes to escape is no longer the Great Satan.

Theory vs. reality

One of the best things that has happened to open source over the past 20 years is that it has gradually lost its religious zeal and simply become pragmatic reality. No one campaigns for TensorFlow, Apache Kafka, or MongoDB. We use these things because they're demonstrably better, not because they're open source.

Some organizations, however, are still lost in the Cold War era of free software/open source, tilting at nonexistent windmills.

SEE: Linux distribution comparison chart (Tech Pro Research)

Take the words of Francesca Bria, Barcelona City's commissioner of technology and digital innovation. Back in October 2017 he declared: "The presence of the IT giant Bill Gates in municipal computers will be progressively reduced by the end of this municipal term of office."

Bill Gates, for those who need reminding, used to run Microsoft, back before he retired to spend billions of dollars helping eradicate disease and stuff like that. He hasn't been the face of Microsoft for quite some time. Someone should let Barcelona know.

On Twitter Bria went further:

[Barcelona] is moving to free and open source software. It is about changing procurement to spend public budget in favor of local open source entrepreneurs instead of too-big-to-fail multinationals. It is about making [government] more open, transparent & participatory.

It's motherhood and apple pie. It's also probably wrong.

While I've been on the record in favor of such technological sovereignty in the past, with the caveat that preferences for open source trump mandates, the reality of such moves comes at a steep price. The City of Munich is now spending €50 million to undo its long flirtation with Linux desktops. Why? "Users were unhappy and software essential for the public sector is mostly only available for Windows," Munich councilor Anne Hübner detailed. The city initially spent 15 years (and millions of euros) trying to get away from Microsoft, but "those efforts eventually failed."

Again, why? Because they put ideology before the practical needs of real people. Even at open source company Red Hat it's now common to see plenty of Macs and iPhones, both proprietary in ways Microsoft Windows never approached. It turns out that true "freedom" comes when people can do their jobs, not when they're shackled to some grand ideology.

SEE: Open source champion Munich heads back to Windows (free PDF) (TechRepublic)

An outdated view of Microsoft

Also, while Microsoft Windows remains proprietary (ditto Office), Microsoft as a company has made a 180-degree turn from the company demonized by Barcelona. As measured by number of GitHub contributors, Microsoft is the no. 1 open source contributor on earth. Even if we look at code contributions, Microsoft is a close second to Google, another company whose products Barcelona almost certainly must eschew under its too-rigid policy.

github-contributors.png
Felipe Hoffa

Is there a case to be made for preferring open source as a government (or corporate) entity? Sure. But once that passes from preference to hard-and-fast rule, with a forced march toward 70% of IT spend on open source by 2019, Barcelona is on the path to user disappointment, not enlightenment, just like Munich before it.

Rather than blackballing one of the world's biggest contributors to open source software, Barcelona would do better to engage Microsoft to see how it can achieve the flexibility it desires without sacrificing access to a superior array of desktop software than open source can offer. Microsoft has evolved. Perhaps Barcelona needs to, as well.

Open source doesn't need a mandate to win. Where it's actually better, it dominates. Desktop software just isn't an area where open source can compete favorably with proprietary alternatives like Microsoft.

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Image: iStockphoto/Gatsi
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