Open source versus Microsoft: The new rebellion begins

Neither side can afford to lose, but one surely must

Opinion Twice it was tried, twice it failed. In Germany, Munich and Lower Saxony both decided to switch to open source for official IT. Both projects, to some extent or another*, returned to Microsoft. Now the state of Schleswig-Holstein is hoping for third time lucky. It's been planning the same thing for three years, and now it's pressing the button.

There are good reasons to think that this time open source may stick. The lessons of the last two failed transitions, nominally costs too high and compatibility too low, have been taken on board. The plan is to start with LibreOffice and move through essential infrastructure and desktop OS to the full top-to-bottom open stack. Open source in 2024 is simply better than it was last decade. Microsoft's focus on moving people to Office 365 and upping hardware specs for Windows 11 for no good reason makes taking a different path much more palatable.

These are good reasons that make the transition plausible, desirable, and doable. They have little to do with its success. 

Schleswig-Holstein says the major drivers this time are data protection, privacy, and security. The argument is that it's irresponsible to hand all those to an outside agency, let alone one without state oversight, albeit subject to the Digital Services and Digital Markets Act. The state must protect its people. Today, that means their data. The term is Digital Sovereignty. If you think that sounds like a political decision, boy are you ever right.

Sovereignty is a game played for the highest stakes. An expensive synonym for independence, it's frequently used to mask the many nuances of living in an interconnected world – ask any sane Brit about Brexit – but here it crystallized the reality of our data-driven lives: most countries are client states of the Microsoft empire.

We should note here that Microsoft also has cloud products that it says provide sovereign data for customers. And it has complied with several rulings on data protection and privacy both by Germany specifically and by the European union more generally.

Client states go back as far as history. An empire uses its heft to compel a client state to a contract that sets out what the client has to do for its overlords, what the overlords will do for the client, and what happens if the client disobeys. These three things boil down to the client sending lots of resources in exchange for trusting the empire to defend it. If the client revolts, game over. If the empire changes its mind, that's too bad.

These agreements are called suzerain-vassal treaties. They go back as far as Ancient Egypt through to the Warsaw Pact, and further if Vladimir Putin wins in Ukraine. You'll have one at home if you have a copy of the Old Testament because that's what the Book of Deuteronomy is, and one in the office if you've got a contract with Big Tech. Well, almost.

The flaw in such treaties for clients is that they have no option but to trust an entity they may not find trustworthy. In most of the modern world, this is no longer entirely true because of national and international law and regulation. The downside for the overlords is that if one client successfully revolts, the jig is up. Others will swiftly follow. That remains entirely true, and both Microsoft and Schleswig-Holstein know this in their bones.

Microsoft will want to prevent this transition from happening. It has infinite resources for lobbying, legal action, and whatever other actions it thinks it needs. In the past, its privacy stance saw it banned for use in schools in the state of Hessen, although the company has absorbed rectifying decisions that eventually followed. This too is fully understood, and very much not appreciated, in Germany.

Microsoft has a lot of cards to play here. Schleswig-Holstein will have to maintain compatibility with Windows within its own borders, with the German federation, with Europe, and the rest of the world. If a change to Windows happens to break that compatibility, guess who picks up the pain and the bills. Microsoft wouldn't dream of doing that deliberately, no matter how high the stakes, yet these things happen. Freedom to innovate, don't you know.

penguins enter the port of kiel in germany. kiel is the biggest city in Schleswig-Holstein

German state ditches Windows, Microsoft Office for Linux and LibreOffice


If in five years the transition is a success, the benefits to the state, the people, and open source will be immeasurable. As well as bringing data protection back to those charged with providing it, it will give European laws new teeth. It will increase expertise, funding, and opportunities for open source. Schleswig-Holstein itself will become a new hub of technical excellence in an area that intensely interests the rest of the world, in public and private organizations.

Microsoft cannot afford to let this happen. Schleswig-Holstein cannot back down, now it's made it a battle for independence. That may change if a new set of politicians are elected with a different agenda, but here we must give the voters the responsibility of keeping an eye on things.

All empires fall when the power to impose their will is lost. The decision by Schleswig-Holstein to evict Microsoft may not feel biblical right now: do not doubt it could become so. The stakes are that high. The prophecy is for interesting times ahead. ®

*Politicos elected in Munich in 2020 have indicated they back a shift to open source, though it's not clear how far along this is.

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