Open Source Office Suites and Your Business

The Open Source Initiative promotes the spread and use of open source software, or software that follows an extensive list of criteria that allows for user accessibility to not only the program itself, but also to source code, redistribution rights (free and for-profit), allowance for derivative works, source code integrity (i.e.: must disclose that a project is a fork of another project, such as LibreOffice is a fork (offshoot) of OpenOffice.org). Although many home users use LibreOffice and OpenOffice.org as personal office suites, much of the business office suite market is still dominated by various incarnations of Microsoft Office.

WHY MICROSOFT OFFICE IS SO DOMINANT

  1. Continuous innovation as competitor’s products improve
  2. Inertia, much like the Newtonian ideal of “an object in motion is likely to stay in motion (assuming no elements of friction), a company using Office is likely to continue using Office, so long as nothing significant exists to promote switching that is greater than the cost of dealing with updates and the random headache.
  3. Longstanding intercompatibility with other computers using Microsoft Office: Although there are compatibility issues between Office 2003 and earlier to Office 2007 and later (i.e.: Office 2003 uses .doc, .xls, and .ppt vs. Office 2007 using .docx, .xlsx, and .pptx) with regards to file names, options exist to improve cross-compatibility between the two generations.
  4. Microsoft Office has an extensive support network for professional users ranging from written support to fee-based chat and phone support, and certifications at various levels for “Microsoft Office Experts” (This one’s a credential, and is good to have on your resume, folks.)
  5. With Office 2013 and later (the upcoming Office 2016), the ability to use cloud computing to use Office Programs on laptops, tablets, and smartphones without having to save on each and every device.

MICROSOFT OFFICE ISSUES

Well, all that’s great!!!! Interoperability with other incarnations of Microsoft Office, an extensive support network, and innovations, and cloud computing!. Nothing’s wrong with the status quo, right?! Wrong. Many small things hinder the monolith. Here’s a few to consider.

  1. The Ribbon in Microsoft Office 2007 and later is promoted by Microsoft as easier to use than the traditional menu-based toolbar. For keyboard and mouse-heavy users, the Ribbon makes it more difficult to complete simple tasks due to confusion and inability to find basic office functions.
  2. The initial cost of entry: Although Office 365 (the “home-user friendly”) version of Office has an entry point of $99.99 per year that allows installation to up to 5 PCs, and the business variant has plans ranging from $5 per user per month to $12.50 per user per month (with 1 year commitment), scaling this cost to an enterprise of thousands of computers can result in payments of millions of dollars per year just to maintain license rights.
  3. The CLOUD. While cloud computing allows for access anytime, anywhere, there are many issues with cloud security including extraction of security keys, service hijacking (espionage on cloud activities), and natural disasters potentially wiping out cloud servers.

Personally, #3 alone would be more than sufficient for me to avoid a Microsoft Office product. I like having all my work on a drive that’s on my person.

WHY OPEN-SOURCE IS BETTER FOR BUSINESS

So, now that we know the pros and cons of the established, why should open-source office suites such as LibreOffice be considered as viable alternatives? After all, Microsoft Office’s various incarnations hold a near death-grip on the market, and there are entire classes dedicated to gaining proficiency. Well, there are various reasons to consider open-source software.

  1. Cost. Per the rules outlined in the Open Source Agreement, a fee cannot be mandatory to use the product (although donations are MORE than welcome). Companies and individuals can engage in fee-based support (or buy the product on a disc if so desired), but the general spirit is that the product is free to use, and can be modified to the user’s needs. In contrast, Microsoft Office products are closed-source, and the license explicitly prohibits modification to the product (see here, Section 7).
  2. User-friendliness: As mentioned in the previous section, one of the biggest complaints about Microsoft’s transition from Office 97–2003 to Office 2007–2013 (and 2016) is the Ribbon’s ability to complicate many tasks. Both LibreOffice (up to at least 5.0.1.1) and OpenOffice (as of 4.1.1) rely on the UI commonly seen in Microsoft Office 97–2003. By maintaining a legacy interface, employees who are not comfortable with the Ribbon due to its learning curve, learning disabilities, etc., can continue using an up-to-date program without having to deal with the various layers of “convenience” that Microsoft now offers.
  3. Compatibility: Open Source office suites allow for a far greater array of file types to be opened than more traditional software. LibreOffice opens, reads, and saves files ranging from OpenDocument compliant (.odt, .ods, .odp, .odb) to Microsoft Classic (.doc, .xls, .ppt) to Office Open XML (Office 2007 to present) files (.docx., .pptx., .xlsx, etc.,). However, LibreOffice (and OpenOffice.org) can open and save documents in other formats such as WordPerfect. LibreOffice 5 is also much improved in how it handles Macros and other functions that were put into a Microsoft program, although its macros language is different from Microsoft’s so be weary here.
  4. Compatibility (Part 2): Open Source office programs are not restricted to Windows and Mac. Both LibreOffice and OpenOffice.org are available for Mac and Windows, but they are available as well for Linux, Debian, Sun, and can even be ported to BSD distros. So if you’re working on a project on Windows, and your colleague has PC-BSD, you can email your file to him or her and the file will be operable across computing systems.
  5. Security: There is no cloud based service for LibreOffice nor OpenOffice. Although Collabora has put LibreOffice on the cloud (I had a colleague on a Chromebook, his joy when I showed him this was enormous), there is no coercion by LibreOffice or OpenOffice for a subscription-based service, nor is there any incentive to use a cloud. This, combined with both office suite’s small size (they’re both under a 1GB full installation, 1.5 GB is necessary if you want to keep the unpacked install files.), means that there’s plenty of room for users to keep files stored offline on a hard drive or SSD. If you want to share a file, either email it, or share it via a flash drive.

So, now that the benefits of Open-Source are laid out, what organizations are actually using Open Source software in daily operation? Per Open.gov,

  • 40 states
  • 46 U.S. Cities and Counties
  • 45 Countries Worldwide
  • Full List: See here

use open-source software in various capacities in order to improve interoperability and reduce costs. The precedent is therefore set for private industry and government organizations to provide open-source means to their employees as well as consumers. So, what’s your organization’s excuse? Last time I checked, security, stability, and a nice big fat wallet were two of the goals of most enterprises… but then again, the OPM and the U.S. government seem to be doing a very good job of proving me wrong.


Originally published at www.linkedin.com.

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