OpenOffice.org is one of the most promising open-source products on the market today: a legitimate alternative to a bloated, absurdly overpriced Microsoft Office. Yet when I look at the direction OpenOffice.org is taking, I wonder whether the organization behind the product is prepared to make the most of its opportunities.
OpenOffice.org has been on my mind a lot recently. Although I have worked quite a bit with the open-source office suite on my home Windows and Linux systems, it isn't yet up to snuff on the Mac platform, which means I'm not using it on an everyday basis.
My wife, however, downloaded and installed OpenOffice.org a while back, and she now uses it instead of Microsoft Office when she works at home. She's also interested in evaluating the suite for use at the educational non-profit where she works.
So far, so good: One more open-source convert, and one more person helping to spread the good word in one of the industries that can least afford to keep feeding Microsoft's cash cow. At this rate they might be serving some cheap hamburger in Redmond soon, right?
I'm not so sure about that. OpenOffice.org is one of the most promising open-source products on the market today, and it has almost unlimited potential. Is the organization behind the product, however, ready to make the most of its opportunities?
My concerns fall into two categories, marketing and user-centered development, that are really two sides of the same coin.
There's no sense blaming OpenOffice.org if it can't cut deals with hardware OEMs to put the suite on new Windows PCs--this is an area where Microsoft plays for keeps, and it may never be a productive avenue for promoting an open-source Office alternative. And if you read the OpenOffice marketing material available online, the organization certainly seems to have the right ideas about topics such as making the migration process from Office as simple as possible.
In practice, however, OpenOffice.org isn't doing a lot of the little things--or the big things--that could make this a lot easier. Why, for example, will you search in vain for a small, easy to install viewer for OpenOffice documents? Anyone who thinks someone receiving a document using the suite's native, XML-based format should download and install the whole enchilada just to read a few pages isn't living in the real world. Yet I've seen just that solution suggested more than once on OpenOffice.org forums.
The suite's growing dependence on Java is another potential disaster for users, especially those on Windows who haven't yet downloaded a Java runtime. Sure, the suite's Java components are optional. Will that always be the case? Is Sun, which supports OpenOffice.org and sells its own suite, StarOffice, based on the OpenOffice code base, pressuring the organization in any way to use Java?
My wife discussed both issues with me, as have other people familiar with the product. They all express, in somewhat different ways, the same concern: A product they're willing to use while it continues to improve might actually take them the opposite direction.
The world doesn't need another 200MB hunk of bloatware that takes three days to load on a new system. If this is the road OpenOffice is destined to take, let me off at the next stop. But I'm almost certain that's not the case, which means there's plenty of time to fix whatever might be going wrong. I hope OpenOffice.org at least pauses long enough to consider whether a series of choices that look reasonable by themselves, in the short term, could someday add up to just another roadkill on the highway behind the Office juggernaut.
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