Fact Vs. Friction: Picking The Right Open-Source Office Suite - InformationWeek

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1/14/2009
08:54 PM
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Fact Vs. Friction: Picking The Right Open-Source Office Suite

Open-source politics can be a nasty and pointless business. That's why it's usually a good idea for users to avoid it like the plague.

Open-source politics can be a nasty and pointless business. That's why it's usually a good idea for users to avoid it like the plague.Over the past several months, a war of words has erupted over the future of OpenOffice.org. Some developers claim the project suffers from a shrinking developer base, ignorance of its users' true needs, and destructive corporate meddling.

Others insist that the whole affair is a thinly-disguised effort to kill OOo before it poses a mortal threat to Microsoft's Office monopoly. This group sees a derivative project based on OpenOffice.org code, known as Go-OO, as Microsoft's weapon of choice.

I could rehash the gory details here, but I'm writing a blog post, not dispensing sleep aids.

Actually, that's not fair: IT journalist Bryce Byfield recently published an excellent, and highly readable, summary of the fight that has erupted between OOo and its detractors. I can't improve upon his work covering this convoluted catfight, and I don't intend to try.

Instead, let's focus on what most small-business users really care about: Picking the right software suite to maximize their productivity, control costs, and manage risk.

In particular, let's look at five closely related business productivity suites: OpenOffice.org, StarOffice, Go-OO, OxygenOffice, and NeoOffice. All of them are involved in some way in this debate, and that makes it especially important to discuss their actual differences and similarities.

Who maintains each of these products? All of these office suites are based largely on the source code contributed to the OpenOffice.org project, yet they all walk at least slightly different paths. Sun Microsystem's StarOffice is the only one that requires users to pay a licensing fee; in return, they receive technical support, legal indemnification, and additional bundled software. It is also the only one to employ a proprietary software license.

Sun acquired the original StarOffice source code in 1999 and released it under an open-source license to jump-start the OpenOffice.org project. As a result, all of these suites, including OpenOffice.org, are based on Sun's original release of the StarOffice source code.

Go-OO is a community-developed version of OpenOffice.org with some additional patches, file format support, and bundled tools. Although Go-OO has indirect links to Novell Corp., its source code is freely available under an open-source license, and the project does not claim any formal ties either to Novell or to any other private firm.

OxygenOffice and NeoOffice are independent, community-supported OpenOffice.org spinoffs, each of which offers its own unique twist on the standard OOo offering.

What are the most important differences? While there are differences, it might be a stretch to describe them as "important," especially for small-business users.

Many companies, of course, want to know what paying StarOffice users get that OpenOffice.org doesn't provide for free. In a recent blog entry, I deal with this question in some detail; in general, however, StarOffice is mostly of interest to large enterprises, although there exceptions to this rule.

The differences associated with Go-OO are a bit more significant. These include more complete, multi-lingual dictionary content included as part of the default installation, rather than as separate extensions. Go-OO also supports integrated SVG file support, 3-D transition effects for slideshow presentations, and some user interface tweaks that users may or may not prefer to the OpenOffice.org defaults.

Two of the more significant differences, especially for developers, involve Go-OO support for Microsoft VBA and its support of the Mono programming language for creating third-party add-on tools. Both are sore spots among developers already furious at Novell for cutting its 2006 deal with Microsoft -- and neither makes one bit of difference to most of the small businesses using either Go-OO or OpenOffice.org.

OxygenOffice bundles OOo with lots of extras, including a huge clip art and photo library, document templates, and additional font support. Like so many of the extras bundled with various OpenOffice.org variants (including Sun's proprietary StarOffice suite), users can find most of this content elsewhere, although it can be more convenient to get it bundled as a complete package.

NeoOffice was until recently the first choice for Mac users who wanted to run OpenOffice.org. Although the release of OpenOffice.org 3.0, which includes native support for Mac OS X on Intel-based PCs, will make NeoOffice less relevant (except for Mac users still working with older PowerPC hardware), its developers insist they will continue to work on the project.

What are the risks involved with trying any of these products? There aren't any -- period. Explore one of them, some of them, or all of them. Decide for yourself which products offer the features your business requires. And then enjoy taking the money once spent on Microsoft Office licensing fees to spend on other, more productive IT investments.

Will committing to a particular product put my company's data at risk? I'm saving the best for last here: This is the most loaded question for many companies pondering a move away from Microsoft Office, yet it is also the most misleading question.

As most Office users already know, Microsoft itself has moved to a new set of Office file formats. These formats are open, in the sense that they are fully documented and available for other developers to incorporate in their own products -- even competing products.

As a result, OpenOffice.org and its variants all include complete support for OOXML. Microsoft's older, proprietary Office file formats are a different story -- and not just for companies that have moved away from Office. Any business that still archives data using proprietary Office file formats is playing with fire, and sooner or later they will get burned.

All of these products (now including Microsoft Office) also support the open-source OpenDocument Format. Since the ODF standard is completely open, it provides even better long-term insurance against file format compatibility issues than Microsoft OOXML. And in the long run, how your company stores its business data matters more than which product it picks to work with that data.

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