Wednesday, July 05, 2006

red diamond Talking about OpenOffice.org's compelling features

In a Linux Journal article today, Nicholas Petreley writes that Linux Office suites need to gain more compelling features for people to switch. He argues Microsoft did win their customers not by emulating their established competition, but by offering certain advantages and making it still easy for them to switch.

I'm not sure if he is advocating for the Open Source/Free Software community to emulate the bad business practices of Microsoft in exploiting their virtual monopoly and driving competition out of business by undercutting their distribution channels?

One key to Microsoft Office's success was, the secret integration between Office and the OS (where MS had a very strong position). The other key was that they had a virtual monopoly on the distribution channel through pre-loading with new PCs. At the time MS strong armed PC manufacturers to bundle the OS and Office suites with every new PC. So from the standpoint of a new PC buyer it was "for free" and meant spending extra money to buy one or more packages and also to install them and support them separately. So convenience and monopolistic tactics won over features and compatibility. By the way, the office suite idea was novel at the time as well and best executed by MS, just to give them credit.

I don't think that a single convenience feature such as "strong" links would win me over from one proprietary package to another (i.e. EIOffcie, as Nicholas Petreley suggests). That said, OpenOffice.org has already the compelling feature that makes it superior to MS Office. It is the support for Open Document Format (ODF) or ISO 26300.

Not everybody might yet have realized it, but not only the State of Massachusetts has a problem with long term storage of electronic documents that are so prevalent today in an office environment. You can't read a 20 year old Wordstar document these days (even if the storage media, i.e.tape, is perfectly readable). I know because my master theses and a couple of my publications are in that format. Non of the current packages does fully support it.

The seemingly obvious does not work. You can't keep the old packages around, because they won't install on the new OS (16 bit --> 32 bit --> 64 bit --> ...). You can't keep the old OS around, because it won't install on the new hardware (see above). By the way, the old software won't play well with the new printer either. And building a virtual museum of old technology artifacts that even has to work just in case someone needs access to an older document is not the direction we want to go anyway. We want new and old documents accessible through the Internet and quickly.

According to the State of Massachusetts, only an open and free (as in speech) document format can guarantee long into the future that you have access to your actual document. It must be open and documented, so anybody can write a program against it. It must also be free so nobody can prevent you from doing so, just because they want to leverage certain monopoly effects or stifle a particular competition.

OpenOffice.org (OOo) uses ODF as its default format and is the package with the largest installed base for supporting this format. It certainly is not a short term convenience feature, but it will com in handy if you want to review your high school writings from your arm chair in retirement. And it sure is essential if your grandson wants to research the title to his grandfathers goldmine in the archives of the State of Massachusetts.

Certainly, OOo is not a product that can leverage monopolies nor has it to, in order to undercut the price of the competition. And as free (as in speech) software anybody can always do something about the missing killer feature, implement it or organize funding for its implementation. You say that is so hard? Look at what a couple of guys do with NeoOffice to get the support and integration they want for Mac OS X.

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