OpenOffice - Have Any Bills to Pay?

Is there any reason to pay for productivity software in an educational environment? And I promise, nothing about MySpace...

I like OpenOffice. Much like Linux and the rest of the open source software floating about, OpenOffice has a lot to offer. Again, much like so much open source software, OpenOffice is not without its flaws. Version 2.0 was recently released for several operating systems, including Windows and Macintosh and has been touted as a realistic alternative to Microsoft Office.

Some of you may have noticed a central theme in my blogs, i.e., free is good. So, at least from an educator's perspective, is there any good reason to actually pay for productivity software? I've stated before that in many ways, modern operating systems with a graphical user interface are basically interchangeable. Marc Wegner noted that:

"...it doesn't really matter which platform you select because the paradigm is essentially the same from platform to platform, whether it is Windows or Macintosh or UNIX/Linux. As long as there is no pretense that one solution is substantially less expensive than another -- the costs may be distributed differently but the long-term TCO are the same."

This seems to play out, at least for sophisticated and technically-savvy students.

However, we've also seen that minor deviations from the norm can wreak havoc with the less sophisticated students (and, more often, teachers and staff). And yet, OpenOffice is free. Free wasn't good enough for my lab to deal with Kubuntu. But is free enough to deal with the perception of a steep learning curve among staff and students? Is it enough to give up tech support?

Oftentimes, my posts come down to money. I end with a statement along the lines of "in a cash-strapped setting like mine," or "at my school, like so many other underfunded public education institutions," this makes sense. And in fact, that is certainly a compelling argument for a genuinely good piece of software like OpenOffice. However, having used Microsoft Office, Corel WordPerfect Office, and OpenOffice extensively, I can say that I really like OpenOffice for itself, and not just for its cost. In this case, it seems that you get quite a bit more than what you pay for.

Maybe the best test of this theory, though, came when my Introduction to Computers class migrated our computer lab back from Kubuntu to Windows. Having been using Linux, the students were accustomed to OpenOffice. I left the decision of which office suite to install up to the students and, with few exceptions, the students chose OpenOffice. They cited the ability to output to PDF, the slick interface, the frequency of updates, and the fact that most of them had replaced Microsoft Works on their home computers with OpenOffice.

For basic productivity, most of these suites really are interchangeable. They can read each others files, even if they use proprietary formats (or open standards-based formats). Even their menus are similar. There are a few exceptions, of course. If your users need Microsoft Access or need to program in Visual Basic for Applications, a Microsoft solution is an obvious choice. OpenOffice actually contains a database product called Base, but it is not mature enough to touch the functionality of Access. Similarly, it cannot match Office in terms of programmability; VBA is incredibly powerful and mature, and, no matter how I feel about Microsoft, VBA is just plain cool technology.

So when the next upgrade to Office comes out, should you invest in it? Or should you just go to openoffice.org and download the latest and greatest from the open source community? As always, it depends upon your user requirements. But if those requirements don't have very much to do with programming or databases, it should be really difficult to justify the expense of Microsoft Office. Most of your students won't care, your staff will get over it, your taxpayers will appreciate the significant savings, and the open source community will do nothing but make this product better as it gains marketshare.

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