Switching to OpenOffice, Then Switching Back

By on November 23, 2012

German city says OpenOffice shortcomings are forcing it back to Microsoft: A city in Germany tried to switch to OpenOffice for the last five years, and is now switching back to Microsoft Office.

Freiburg has been using OpenOffice and Microsoft Office 2000 side-by-side since 2007 and has been very restrictive issuing licenses of new Microsoft Office suites.

[…] on Friday, German open source developers reacted angrily, saying that the city uses outdated software and did not consider upgrading to a current version of LibreOffice or OpenOffice.org.

To be fair, it seems like a lot of their problems resolve around running them both side-by-side, rather than running just one.

But, this brings me to a cold, hard fact: commercial software is often just better than open-source software.

Now, don’t get me wrong – I love GPL software.  I was a big LAMP dev for a long time.

But when you don’t have license fees coming in, and you don’t have a massive community of developers (a la Drupal), then you are limited on what you can do.  License fees pay developers.  Developers write software.

Before you accusing me of violating the open-source ethos, let me reiterate: I love open-source software, and I think there are a great many open-source software packages and systems out there.  But without a critical mass community developing on it, most open-source software is going to be the cheap option – the poorer substitute for the real thing.

I have used Microsoft Office, OpenOffice, and Google Docs extensively.  I’m sorry, but Microsoft Office is simply better than the alternatives.  They each have strengths and weaknesses – for heavy collaboration, Google Docs can’t be beat, for instance – but in sum, Microsoft Office just runs away with it.

Yes, it’s big.  Yes, it’s expensive.  Yes, you could say it’s bloated. But it also has a feature set that dwarfs the competition.  License fees allow you to do stuff like that.

Pretending that things like OpenOffice and Google Docs (admittedly not open-source, but still an alternative) are feature-comparable with Microsoft Office is really just a little silly.

(And, even if one could say that OpenOffice was comparable, a recent version of OpenOffice I used was, frankly, just a direct lift of an older version of Microsoft Office, down to almost every interface and dialog box.  This raises the question of what “better” even means when something is simply a knock-off of the original.)

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Comments

  1. This seems like an odd way to frame the situation:

    But, this brings me to a cold, hard fact: commercial software is often just better than open-source software.

    The opposite is also true. Assuming you don't have any philosophical issues with which software you use (in regards to source code, certain freedoms, abandonment, etc.) then you are probably focusing on two elements:

    1- Does it do what I need / meet minimum requirements? (Note that this is specifically different than your "Pretending" comparison)

    2- If multiple products meet the first issue, which is the least expensive?

    Now if I personally was advising an organization that was looking at things in this way I'd have a few suggestions if they ultimately went with an open source solution.

    1- Even if the software is free, the solution is not

    That might translate into hiring an additional person to do support and/or dev for the software. Or it could be time, but either way there are still some form of costs involved beyond writing a check for the software.

    2- Invest the difference.

    As an example assume that you are spending $15,000 a year for Microsoft Office and you determine that LibreOffice will be sufficient for what you need. On the face of it that potentially saves you $15,000 a year, but I'd contend that would be a poor comparison. Instead you should take a portion of that savings and invest it in LibreOffice in some form. Take $7,000 of that and put it towards sponsoring a LibreOffice developer, or for a support contract. If the numbers were bigger it might make sense to just hire a LibreOffice dev full time.

    That helps toward the goal of paying for developers to do what developers do, while at the same time saving you lots of money. There are other possible benefits that may or may not be realized as well, but I think this comment has gone on long enough.

  2. I’d contend that would be a poor comparison. Instead you should take a portion of that savings and invest it in LibreOffice in some form. Take $7,000 of that and put it towards sponsoring a LibreOffice developer, or for a support contract.

    Here you're asking a U.S. business to think ahead about an amorphous community to which it hold no allegiance and/or spend money it doesn't absolutely have to, which isn't going to happen. A U.S. business who wants to use a free product over an alternative is not going to ask what they can do to give back to the community, they're just going to bank the savings.

    And as for a support contract -- who has one of these for Microsoft Office, and have they ever used it? When I worked in enterprise IT, we had big support contracts for enterprise software, not for desktop software, and no one could call anyone about an individual problem with Microsoft Word. By definition, pretty much, desktop software problems affect individuals, not groups, and no one individual is free to invoke an enterprise support contract -- they'll just work around it.

    Don't get me wrong -- your ideas are both great. But also completely unrealistic, and neither are something that a critical mass of American companies will ever do. To them, free software is jut free, and they'll spend the savings somewhere else.

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