Open Source Software, Free at a price

Computing

Developers have released a beta, or test version, of the new OpenOffice.org, the most serious rival to Microsoft’s ubiquitous Office suite. Version 3 has some compelling new features, and can’t be beaten at the price. So why isn’t the suite making headway?

I’ve used OpenOffice.org on and off since it was released at the turn of the century. It has made significant progress in that time. Whereas versions 1.0 and 1.1 were unstable and lacked basic functionality, version 2.0, released three years ago, was a competent alternative to Office. OpenOffice runs on more platforms than Microsoft’s product and, best of all, it’s completely free of charge.

Fact is, though, that the vast majority of computer users don’t actually need Office. OpenOffice provides all the tools they’d ever require, including a word processor, spreadsheet, presentation manager and database. So why don’t more people use the software?

I think there are two main reasons:

* They don’t know about it. One of the biggest problems with open-source initiatives is that they lack the marketing muscle of commercial software enterprises. Microsoft spends hundreds of millions of dollars advertising its products each year, but software projects such as OpenOffice, developed by volunteers, rely almost exclusively on word-of-mouth marketing. Take, for example, the Mozilla Firefox Web browser: despite Firefox being the superior product, rival Internet Explorer, which ships with Windows, still dominates the browser market.

* But the biggest barrier to OpenOffice’s adoption is compatibility, or lack thereof, with Office. Because the world has standardised on Office, other productivity software simply has to interoperate seamlessly with it. That means the ability to save documents created in OpenOffice in a format that can be read in Office and the ability, similarly, to open Office documents in OpenOffice. That’s easier said than done. It is particularly difficult to ensure that a complex presentation, for example, retains its correct formatting when transferred between the two suites. Though the developers behind OpenOffice have done good work with their file conversion tools — converting simple documents works well — the software is still not great at handling complex documents.

This is enough of a shortcoming for most people to stick to Office, despite its relatively high price. Unfortunately, the developers still seem to be struggling with this key aspect of the office suite. Version 3 includes support for Office Open XML, the new default file format that Microsoft uses in its latest version of Office, released last year. But it falls well short of the mark, making a hash of saving anything but the most basic documents to Open XML. Let’s hope the developers fix this before the final version ships in September.

Without excellent interoperability, OpenOffice will struggle to make headway against Office, despite people not having to shell out a cent to use it.

Financial Mail