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With more than 400 million users, Microsoft Office demands attention: it is unarguably the most popular office productivity suite and arguably the de facto standard for word processing, spreadsheet and presentation software. The separate components—including Word, Excel and PowerPoint—that Microsoft first bundled and released in 1989 were shining examples of solid software. Both then and now, these separate software components together form what few people would disagree is a good product.

Trouble Me

What areas of OpenOffice.org do you want me to explore? Send your suggestions to editor@novell.com.

Perhaps expectedly, you pay a high price for Microsoft quality. Microsoft Office, which contributed US$11 billion to Microsoft's revenue in 2005 and accounts for 60 percent of the Redmond giant's profits, is significantly more expensive than any of its competitors. (See tech2.blogsome.com/2006/08/29/17-ms-office-killers.) Volume licensing prices aside, Microsoft Office Standard Edition retails for $399—that's $100 more than competitor Corel WordPerfect Office, $200 more than IBM Lotus SmartSuite, and $399 more than OpenOffice.org. (For a detailed comparison of office productivity suites, see en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Comparison_of_office_suites.)

Unless your IT budget is far, far bigger than most, I can only assume that you have more important things on which to spend your limited funds than an office suite. Perhaps the time has come for you to open your mind and consider a change. But change to what—and why?

Sending in the Canary
This is the first article in a series designed to show you one suite that might be worth considering, at least in part because you have little to lose: OpenOffice.org is available free of charge from the Web site of the same name. Available under the GNU Lesser General Public License (LGPL), OpenOffice.org can be used wherever and however you choose. (See GNU Who?) If you like it, you can copy it and pass it along to friends and family or distribute it widely among students or employees. Doing so is not only legal—it's encouraged.

GNU Who?

GNU General Public Licenses (GPLs) are different than the software licenses to which you are accustomed; in fact, the restrictions GNU licenses impose are essentially opposite to traditional license restrictions.

Traditional licenses are designed to ensure that users cannot modify or redistribute the licensed software. In sharp contrast, GNU licenses are designed to ensure that users can modify and redistribute what the open source community refers to as "free" software. "Free" refers to use not price: that is, free software is software that you can change and then distribute either gratis or for a fee.

The GNU Lesser General Public License (LGPL) is designated as such because it does less to ensure users' freedom to share and distribute software. The GNU LGPL applies only to certain libraries and permits linking these libraries into non-free programs. When libraries are linked to a program, the result is, of course, a derivative of the original library. The GNU GPL permits this type of linking only if the result complies with its criteria of freedom. The GNU LGPL permits more lax criteria for linking libraries with other programs.

The GNU LGPL makes sense in certain circumstances. For example, because the OpenOffice.org free libraries do the same job as widely used nonfree libraries, there is little to gain by limiting these free libraries to free software only. Hence, the GNU LGPL is a better choice than the GNU GPL for OpenOffice.org. (For more information, see gnu.org/licenses/lgpl.html.)

That said, it is not the cost (or rather, lack thereof) that makes OpenOffice.org the leading open source competitor to Microsoft Office and other proprietary suites. (In fact, some trade journalists are touting OpenOffice.org as the leading office suite bar none. See Getting a Few Facts Straight.) By all reports, OpenOffice.org is good software replete with components, features and functions comparable to (or even better than) the leading proprietary suites.

At least, that's what I am hearing. The truth is, I am a new user of OpenOffice.org and as such, have little right to voice an opinion regarding its quality—not yet anyway. Why, you may ask, is Novell Connection magazine soliciting articles about OpenOffice.org from a newbie? The answer is, precisely because I am a newbie and, like the users on your network, am loathe to change office suites. You may as well know that I have been using various versions of Microsoft Office since 1994 and am currently an Office 2003 slave—or at least I was until I was tasked with investigating OpenOffice.org.

Now I ask you: Who better than a reluctant new user (with a slight bias for a proprietary competitor) for you to send canary-like into the mines of OpenOffice? After all, I represent a voice very likely akin to the voice of your average network user. If I report back to you in short, desperate breaths, that the suite is impossibly difficult to use, you will know better than to send in more miners. But if I come out of this experiment alive and well, you may just have to ask yourself, as I asked myself, "Why not give it a try?" (See Trouble Me.)

Playing with the Big Boys
OpenOffice.org is developed by an international community of sponsors and volunteer contributors, including founding sponsor and primary contributor Sun Microsystems. Officially only five years old, OpenOffice.org stems from source code with 10-year-old roots: its source code is based on technology underlying Sun Microsystems' StarOffice suite, which was first released in 1995.

The mission of the OpenOffice.org creators is to build a leading international office suite that runs on all major platforms. In keeping with this mission, OpenOffice.org is available in more than 65 languages and runs stably and natively on the following platforms: Sun Solaris, Linux, Microsoft Windows, Mac OS X and FreeBSD. (For a complete list of supported platforms, see porting.openoffice.org.)

Like its proprietary competitors, including MS Office, Corel WordPerfect Office and IBM Lotus SmartSuite, OpenOffice.org includes word processing, spreadsheet, presentation and data management software, called Writer, Calc, Impress and Base, respectively. Additionally, OpenOffice.org includes Draw, which is flowchart and drawing software that enables you to produce anything from a simple diagram to a 3D illustration with special effects. (The Microsoft suite does not include Microsoft's flowchart software, Visio, and neither the Microsoft nor the IBM Lotus suites include software comparable to Draw.) In other words, with the exception, perhaps, of an e-mail client, OpenOffice.org includes all of the tools you expect in an office productivity suite (and maybe one that you don't).

OpenOffice.org also includes a user interface and feature set similar to other proprietary suites. (See Figure 1.) If you have been using one of these suites, then you probably have at least several megabytes worth of files created using that suite. No worries. OpenOffice.org reads all major competitors' files, which means that if you have been using Corel WordPerfect, you can open those files in OpenOffice.org.

The reverse is also true: you (and anyone of your e-mail pals) can open an OpenOffice.org file in Microsoft Office and most other office suites, including the Corel and IBM Lotus suites. (I have tested this—and will continue to test this—with Microsoft Office. Thus far, I have encountered no problems with compatibility. I will keep you posted.)

OpenOffice.org 2.0 was the first open source office suite to support the Open Document Format for Office Applications (OpenDocument) standard developed by the Organization for the Advancement of Structured Information Standards (OASIS). The OpenDocument OASIS Standard is an XML-based file format that protects content of all types from being locked into an application—or vendor-specific format. What this means to you is that you can view and print these documents in any application that supports the standard and can rest assured that you will be able to do so for years to come.

Many of the leading competitors' suites do not support this standard, including suites from Corel, IBM Lotus, and Apple. Microsoft appears to be reluctantly warming to the idea. (See Getting Things Going)

Learning to Play Fairly in the Sandbox?

According to CNET staff writer Martin LaMonica, until July of this year, Microsoft insisted that it would not support the OpenDocument OASIS Standard in Microsoft Office, purportedly because its customer base wasn't asking for it. Microsoft would "rely instead on third parties for format translators," says LaMonica in his July 5 article titled Microsoft Bends on OpenDocument.

Microsoft changed its mind, as LaMonica points out. Since July, Microsoft has sponsored Open XML Translator, an open source project on SourceForge.net. The project is tasked with creating software that will enable users to open and save MS Office documents in the OpenDocument (ODF) format. (See news.com.com/Microsoft+bends+on+OpenDocument/2100-7344-6090912.html.)

A Microsoft Word plug-in for Office 2007 is already available at sourceforge.net/projects/odf-converter. Translators for Excel and PowerPoint are expected to be available sometime next year.

Calculating Genuine Cost
Whether you install the suite on a laptop so you can test it yourself or install it on a server so you and several of your coworkers can jointly test it, OpenOffice.org costs nothing more than a few moments of your time to download and install. (See Getting Things Going.) As you well know, the same cannot be said for OpenOffice.org proprietary competitors, such as Microsoft Office.

Getting Things Going

To install a copy of OpenOffice.org, go to the Web site of the same name (openoffice.org) and click "get OpenOffice.org" from the Home page. (See Figure 2.) Doing so opens a page that allows you to choose to download the software from the Web, order it on CD or download it via BitTorrent, eMule or other P2P networks. (See Figure 3.)

I opted to download the software from the Web and, when prompted, selected my platform. (My platform is Windows XP, which in this open source forum, I clicked with some measure of shame). [Editors note: Within time, we'll send our canary into the Linux mine to cover the same kind of topic. So keep watching.] After that, I just sat back and watched what turned out to be a routine but notably efficient download.

The download ends with a prompt to launch the installation program, which proceeded without a hitch. After the program was safely stored on my hard drive, I saw the OpenOffice.org folder in the Start menu and arbitrarily clicked to launch the first program listed in the folder, which is Base. (The suite's components are listed alphabetically. (See Figure 4.)

The first time you launch OpenOffice.org (regardless of the component you start with), the suite opens a license agreement and registration wizard, as you might expect. Completing the wizard takes only a few seconds, after which you might be automatically directed to an online user survey. (I was, but am not sure whether this occurs every time. I do know you only get the registration wizard the first time you launch the program. So it's painless.) The survey is optional and prompts you to answer questions about your experience with OpenOffice.org, such as how you heard about it, how long you have been using it and, for seasoned users, what features you would like to add or change.

You also can install OpenOffice.org on a server, so multiple users can access (and test or use) it. The steps for doing so are outlined in the OpenOffice.org Source and Technology FAQ (openoffice.org/FAQs/faq-source.html), but the gist of these steps is this:

  • Download and expand the tarball. ("Tarball" is a fairly common term in open source and UNIX circles. It can, as in this case, refer to GNU or other program source code. It can also refer to an archive that contains myriad related files and was created using the UNIX tar utility.)
  • As root, issue this command from within the /install directory: setup /net
  • From each workstation that will access OpenOffice.org on this server, run (or have the users run) this command: /user/local/openoffice60/program/setup
  • When prompted, choose Standard Workstation Installation.

Now granted, the US$399.00 I quoted in the introduction as the cost of Microsoft Office Standard Edition—which includes Microsoft Word, Excel, PowerPoint and Outlook—is only its suggested retail cost. You can purchase this version of the suite for less. I found single licenses available for as little as $339 and licenses purchased in large volume for as little as $289.00 per license. (See Pretty Pennies for the Proprietary Suite.)

Pretty Pennies for the Proprietary Suite

To find a representative range of volume licensing costs for Microsoft Office, I used the Microsoft Product Licensing Advisor (MPLA). MPLA is a convenient online advisor that helps you find the right Microsoft Volume Licensing program and offers estimated retail pricing for your software needs. (Try it yourself at microsoft.com/licensing/MPLA.) For the purposes of this article, I completed MPLA fields with the same answers for each of four test scenarios, which differed only in terms of the number of users I entered (50, 500, 5,000 or 50,000).

For each MPLA report, I indicated that my corporation would not commit to a two- to three-year contract and that it did not plan to deploy the software worldwide. I further specified that I did not want Software Assurance nor did I want to standardize on Microsoft technology. (Software Assurance gives you "automatic access to new technology" and includes support, tools and training for deploying and using the software.) I asked only for the Office suite and did not request pricing for the additional software that MPLA also recommended (namely Exchange Server and Windows XP).

With the aforementioned as my baseline criteria, MPLA returned estimated costs on licenses alone for Microsoft Office Standard Edition at $369 per license for 50 users (or $18,450) and $361 per license for anywhere from 500 to 50,000 users (or $180,000 to $18,050,000).

MPLA substantially reduced the per-license estimate when I indicated that I would be willing to sign a two to three year contract. For example, under such a contract, MPLA estimated a cost of only $289 per license (or $14,450,000) for 50,000 users.

Perhaps you have found Microsoft Office available for less than I was able to find in my casual search. But I wonder: have you ever found it available as a legally FREE download?

Admittedly, enterprise networks with tens of thousands of users and that use several Microsoft products doubtless have contracts in place that further reduce the per-seat cost of Microsoft Office. Furthermore, the per-seat cost of an upgrade is even less expensive. Nevertheless, one thing is certain: you will pay to install Microsoft Office, whether installing the product for the first time or upgrading it. This much is equally certain: you will not pay to install OpenOffice.org.

That said, migrating to a new product never occurs without some kind of cost. Unfortunately, the actual price of migrating to OpenOffice.org (or any product) is more difficult to pin down than the purchase price of Microsoft Office or other proprietary suites.

While you cannot assess a specific dollar amount for a migration, you can anticipate the types of costs you are likely to encounter. For example, a migration might give rise to training costs. If you skip the training and take the sink-or-swim approach, you might anticipate costs associated with loss of user productivity. You might also worry that opening Microsoft Office documents in OpenOffice.org might lose something in the translation, font or formatting, for example. But, be it known, that should not be the case.

This series is designed, at least in part, to help you better determine the validity of these potential costs. For now, I can report only what I have read, and what I have read implies that these potential costs are little cause for concern.

For example, eWeek.com editor Steven Vaughan-Nichols sums up in a sentence what many industry reporters are saying about OpenOffice.org 2.x. When it comes to "day in and day out office usability," Vaughan-Nichols says, Microsoft Office and OpenOffice.org are "about the same." The bottom line, according to Vaughan-Nichols, is this: "It's free and it works. Next question?" (See Why OpenOffice.org Is Your Best Choice, October 20, 2005, eweek.com/article2/0,1759,1874157,00.asp.)

Getting a Few Facts Straight
Vaughan-Nichols is not the only journalist to report favorably on OpenOffice.org. Lab testers at PC Pro pitted OpenOffice.org against the usual run of proprietary competitors (including Microsoft Office) and called it a winner—the winner. "The best all-around office suite is also the cheapest," lab testers reported, claiming that OpenOffice.org "offers a more compelling proposition than Microsoft Office." (See the lab report at pcpro.co.uk/labs/122/office-suites/introduction.html.)

Journalists are apparently not alone in their approval. As of April 2005, 40 million users had downloaded OpenOffice.org. Of course, this does not mean that 40 million people use OpenOffice.org; it means that many more than 40 million people use OpenOffice.org. After all, if all things are operating according to the designs of the OpenOffice.org creators, their suite is being downloaded, copied and shared.

Coming Up Next
What do these 40+ million users know that you don't? Keep reading this series and find out. Over the next several months, I'll put OpenOffice.org to the test by using it to complete common and advanced business tasks. In upcoming articles, I'll share details regarding these experiences and comment on the OpenOffice.org feature set, answering such questions as these: What's the same as what I am used to? What's different? What's new?

A closed mind, like a closed system, costs too much. The price? Your freedom. So until next time, keep an open mind and consider open software. EndOfArticleRedN



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