Is it Time for OpenOffice?

In 1999, Sun Microsystems acquired StarDivision, and its flagship product, Star Office. The following year, they took aim at Microsoft’s near-monopoly on the desktop productivity market by offering a free, open source version of the package, StarOffice 5.2. In my December, 2000 technology newsletter, I wrote:

Sun Microsystems has decided to play Microsoft’s game [of underpricing their products to force the competition out of business] in an attempt to foil the software giant. Sun primarily makes high-end servers and network applications. They are also the primary developers of the Java programming language. Now, they’re getting in to the applications software market.

OpenOffice GullsI concluded that article by saying that it makes economic sense to run Star Office, and that competition is a good thing for the consumer. The product was good enough to allow people concerned about Microsoft’s market dominance to switch without a major sacrifice in program performance.

As an institution, we didn’t switch. At that point, we were still trying to standardize on a single productivity suite, and had just selected MS Office as our standard. We were still going through the headaches of document conversion from AppleWorks and Microsoft Works, and throwing another wrench into the works would have been a very bad move.

Six years later, we’re still standardized on Microsoft Office. It’s an easy, safe choice, and Microsoft makes it economically attractive to stay with it. When we buy new computers, we purchase an open academic license for the current version of Office. That costs us around $60 per computer. That’s one of the big advantages to being an academic institution. We don’t ever upgrade Office beyond that version on that computer, and when we replace the computer, we buy a new copy of the current version again. In the grand scheme of things, it adds about 4-8% to the cost of a new computer.

The RibbonOffice 2007 may change that, though. The release marks a major departure for the Office user interface. The familiar pull-down menus and toolbars are gone, replaced with the infamous ribbon. Microsoft claims it’s optimized for efficiency and discoverability. My users are going to claim that it’s optimized for confusability. In addition to requiring them to learn a new interface to do the same things they’ve always done, it also takes a lot more screen space to display all of the tools, leaving less room for the document. The ribbon serves as a great reminder of all the wonderful tools Office has built in that nobody ever uses.

Add to this the fact that Microsoft removed most of the useful new features from Office 2007 (why can’t I create a PDF file yet?), plus the fact that Office ’97 met most of my users’ needs, and we have a pretty compelling reason to keep what we have.

Meanwhile, (the full-blown open source project that grew out of the StarOffice application, abbreviated “OOo”) has been slowly chipping away at the market. Sure, Microsoft still has a 95% share, but OpenOffice had 14% of the large enterprise market in 2004, a market Microsoft can’t afford to lose. The product has matured significantly, and many schools are seeing it as a way to save some money while providing take-home copies of the productivity suite for all staff and students.

Last spring, Tech Soup published a fairly comprehensive comparison of the two packages. Granted, this is nearly a year old now, and both products have undergone major updates since then. But the article does a remarkably thorough job of comparing the two products, and pointing out the advantages and disadvantages of each. For the most part, OpenOffice is a viable alternative to Microsoft Office. You do give up a few things by switching, though, including:

  • Grammar check. It’s true that MS Word makes some really poor suggestions sometimes, and I generally keep it turned off. But some people actually use this feature, and it’s worth noting that OOo Writer doesn’t have it.
  • Macros. While both suites have macro capabilities, they’re not interchangeable. If you use Macros extensively in MS Office, you’ll probably have to re-create them on OOo.
  • Pivot tables. If you use pivot tables in Microsoft Excel, you should know that this feature doesn’t exist in OOo Calc. Similar functionality is provided by the OpenOffice DataPilot, but it’s not going to be a seamless migration. If you don’t know what pivot tables are, you don’t need to worry about it.
  • Email and Calendars. If you use Microsoft Outlook, you should know that there’s no email/groupware/calendar application in OpenOffice. Of course, there are lots of alternatives, but there is no built-in application.

On the other hand, switching to OpenOffice would have these benefits:

  • PDF Support. You can generate a PDF document directly from any OpenOffice application.
  • Web page production. While I’d argue that saving a word processing document as a web page, and using that as a web development platform is the wrong way to go, OOo at least produces web pages that work in any browser on any platform, instead of assuming that everyone on the Internet is using Internet Explorer and Windows.
  • Flash export. You can export an Impress document as a flash movie, which can then be played on any computer that has flash installed. Impress is the presentation package for OOo.
  • Cost. It’s free. You can install it anywhere. You can give it away. Students and staff can use it at home.

We’re not ready to switch yet. The small cost savings we would have by switching would be more than absorbed by the additional resources in staff development and support needed to manage the transition. There’s no compelling reason to make the move. But we’re also not switching to MS Office 2007. For at least the next year, we’ll be buying 2007 and downgrading the new machines to our current standard (Office 2002). When we have enough of a critical mass to migrate to Office 2007, we’ll re-examine the feasiblity of a switch. In the meantime, we’re going to start installing OpenOffice in addition to Microsoft Office on our new computers to start giving our users a choice.