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Difficulties of OpenOffice are overblown

I have been using the new OpenOffice beta 2.0 for about a week now. I haven't had one serious difficulty. So I am a little alarmed when I see articles or remarks espousing how costly and difficult it would be to switch to an open source office suite.

As I sit here and write this column, I have been using the new OpenOffice beta 2.0 (Windows Version) for about a week now. I downloaded it, ran the install, and began using it immediately. I did not peruse the help files, check out the read me, or anything of the sort. I just started working. Since then, I haven't had one difficulty arise that prevented me from composing or editing a document in OpenOffice Writer or creating a spreadsheet.

I call this success. Not just on the part of OpenOffice.org but also for the whole concept of the Windows GUI. I am old enough to remember the splash Apple made with the Mac and all the convincing Microsoft had to do to make people switch from DOS and our command-line comfort to Windows.

One of the compelling arguments of the day was that because of the consistency of the Windows GUI interface, particularly in the area of the menu system, we would become better computer users because we could go from program to program with familiarity, thus reducing the learning curve.

And you know what? They were right. Fast forward to 2005, and the majority of our users have been using Windows for at least five years. They also have been using an Office suite for that same amount of time and are pretty familiar with what a word processor does, and to a lesser degree, a spreadsheet and a presentation package such as Power Point.

So I am a little alarmed when I see articles or remarks espousing how costly and difficult it would be to switch to an open source office suite such as OpenOffice or a commercial package such as StarOffice, or even Corel Word Perfect Office, or Lotus SmartSuite.

I will be the first to admit that there will be some costs involved, particularly for the power users who actually use the more detailed features of Microsoft Office. And there will be some conversion headaches with some documents for sure, but as far as word processors and spreadsheets go, for the majority of users, the transition would be far less traumatic than many make it out to be. Those spouting off about how difficult it will be do not give the general user base credit for the basic Windows skills I mentioned above.

And if your argument against it is that people would grumble because you switched out their Office suite, just remember that these are the same folks that grumble over a switch between versions of the same software. So grumbling is a poor indicator of satisfaction/dissatisfaction.

The reason I mention all this is partly because of the polarizing comments I have been reading in the trade press over the State of Massachusetts' decision to switch workers away from Word and Excel (http://news.cnet.com/2100-1012_3-5845451.html). If this were biblical times, I believe someone would have stoned Mass. CIO Peter Quinn for his decision. Others, on the other hand, have praised the decision as if it came down chiseled on a stone tablet.

I personally believe that many of those that have vilified Mr. Quinn have never tried OpenOffice for fear that they would find that they can function just fine in its environment.

To those who have never tried OpenOffice, I encourage you to download it and give it a whirl for a week. I think you will find that as a package it does some things better than MS Office and some things worse than MS Office and some things different than MS Office. But as a whole, does a more-than-adequate job--particularly when you compare the price.

As technology professionals, we are supposed to be able to weigh the pros and cons of technology, independent of emotion or allegiance to a particular vendor or manufacturer. Zealotry is not in your job description.  A decision such as switching Office suites can only be made after careful consideration in your own particular environment and based on fact not on hype or hysteria.

I am willing to bet that Mr. Quinn's decision to make this switch was not a knee-jerk reaction and that he spent a considerable amount of time considering it. It will be interesting to see how it turns out in his environment. However it does, it will not be an indication that it can or can't work for you in your own environment. Only that it succeeded or failed in his.

In the meantime, his decision has given some attention to a product that normally would not cross people's mind during their day-to-day activities. This I applaud him for. We too often create a standard and stick with it mindlessly from year to year just because it was the right decision at that time. When was the last time you actually re-evaluated your standards? I bet that for many, the last time any consideration was made over which Office suite to use was when there was some real competition between the vendors. Since then, most places have been on auto-pilot, switching versions only when told to.

OpenOffice has matured considerably since its inception and now just might be the right time to take a look at the state of things in the office suite world. You have nothing to lose by trying it and might be surprised at what you find.