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Open Source vis-à-vis Microsoft Office Suite Print
Microsoft’s proprietary office suite of desktop applications has held the lion’s share of the market for years. But now it has a competitor that can match much of its functionality, beat it in price, run on a galaxy of operating systems, and provide an open standard document format that has embroiled Microsoft’s proprietary document formats in a heated political debate.

 

With the StarOffice 8 office suite, Sun Microsystems provides a full-featured, multi-platform office productivity suite compatible with Microsoft Office. In 2000 Sun made the source code of StarOffice software publicly available and by doing so, initiated the world's largest Open Source Project, the OpenOffice.org project. OpenOffice.org is a growing open-source project developing an advanced multi-lingual and multi-platform office suite compatible with Microsoft Office. Written in C++ and with documented APIs licensed under the LGPL and SISSL Open Source licenses, OpenOffice.org allows developers to enhance the source. A detailed comparison of StarOffice 8 and OpenOffice 2 is presented in the tables below. After elaborating on some of their distinctions, this article discusses the technical, cost, and other bases for these two suites now being considered seriously and worldwide as an alternative to the present market leader, Microsoft Office.

Development Process

The StarOffice 8 office suite and OpenOffice.org 2.0 share the same code base. Contributions and enhancements to this code base are committed through the worldwide OpenOffice.org developer community including Sun's development engineers. At regular intervals, Sun takes a 'snapshot' of this code to productize the StarOffice product. Additional third party technologies are then added to the StarOffice software.

Additional Components and Support Services in StarOffice

Besides including additional 3rd party technologies, StarOffice is subjected to Sun’s in-house quality assurance (QA) processes while OpenOffice.org uses a community-based QA project for testing. Substantial service, documentation, and support offerings as well as the compliance with Sun's warranty policies complement the StarOffice software offering. Sun's Enterprise Service support offerings include a defined escalation path for bugs and periodic delivery of product patches, updates and upgrades as part of the service subscription.

Premium enterprise support services are available 24 hours a day, 7 days a week and can be integrated in existing service contracts which users might already have. In addition Sun offers web based (self-help) and per-incident support for the StarOffice software. Deployment services, migration support and training offerings complement the service offerings.

The StarOffice and OpenOffice.org Relationship

With StarOffice and OpenOffice.org, there is a synergy between the advantages of an open software development approach and the quality assurance, fully supported software offering that businesses are looking for.

David vs. Goliath

In general, the risk from the increasing interest in StarOffice and OpenOffice to Microsoft is limited because the software giant is getting fairly aggressive with new information-sharing features in the next major version of Office.

But, a threat to Microsoft does exist within emerging markets in Eastern Europe and Asia, where, for instance, the Indonesian government recently announced that it was going with Linux on all desktops. Remember, StarOffice and OpenOffice, but not Microsoft Office, run on the relatively low-cost and more stable Linux operating system (it’s free if you don’t need any support).

In addition, China and India are two of those emerging areas where you don't have a user population that has grown up with Microsoft. So, there are billions of potential users there.

Finally, many European public administrations are distancing themselves from the U.S. software giant Microsoft and turning to free software. For example, Munich, Germany's third largest city, is migrating 14,000 desktops from Windows NT 4.0 to Linux and from Office 97 and 2000 to OpenOffice.org. This migration was considered so important by Microsoft that its chief executive, Steve Ballmer, reportedly interrupted a ski holiday in Switzerland to visit Munich's mayor to dissuade him from migrating.

Beyond its higher cost and the fact that it can’t run on Linux, there has been another major reason for some people and organizations turning away from Microsoft Office: in the United States, officials in the state of Massachusetts have proposed using only nonproprietary document formats in state-affiliated offices effective Jan. 1, 2007.

See Reference 1 for an account of and Reference 2 for a discussion of the pros and cons of the Massachusetts decision.

As part of this new policy, the state would support the newly ratified Open Document Format for Office Applications, or OpenDocument (the formatting standard supported by StarOffice and OpenOffice), and PDFs (portable document format) as the standards for its office documents. Massachusetts officials point out that their documents are historical and legal documents and, once saved, must be accessible to everybody, without having to use 'closed' software to open them now and in the future. In contrast, Microsoft's Office now creates Word, Excel, PowerPoint, and other documents that are sometimes accessible only by Microsoft products. This shortcoming would make them ineligible for use, the state has said. Unless Microsoft starts supporting OpenDocument, Massachusetts’ Chief Information Officer Peter Quinn has said that the state will gradually phase out Microsoft Office in favor of OpenOffice.org. See Figure 1 for the formats used by StarOffice 8’s Writer word processing application.

However, in response to this “heat,” Microsoft announced in late November, 2005 its intention to ease its format rules. They said that they would seek approval to make software formats behind its Office programs an open standard that it would license free to competitors, partners and developers. Under the change, Microsoft’s Office Open XML format could be used by others to make applications and tools that work with Microsoft’s popular Office document programs. Microsoft said it was putting the format through a “fast track” process that would result in approval next year by the International Organization for Standardization, well in advance of the arrival of its next Office version, code-named Office 12, at the end of 2006. If the Microsoft Office Open XML format becomes an endorsed standard, users will have a choice between OpenDocument and Open XML. With two open formats, converters between them would be likely.

However, even though OpenXML is being submitted to a standards group, there is still a license attached. One of the restrictions of the license is that you can’t distribute it freely or transfer ownership of the license. So, as things stand now, if an open-source group agreed to use the license and build an application with it, they can not provide the source code for it with the license. If you write code with a license, you can not share that code with me unless I get a license, too. And this is likely to be a future stumbling block.

On the other hand, opening the Microsoft Office document format may be a step toward eventually ensuring that those people who do not use Office will be able to work with Microsoft Word, PowerPoint and Excel documents without having to buy the software. Microsoft plans to make tools available to enable documents from prior Microsoft Office versions as well as those from competing desktop applications suites like StarOffice and OpenOffice.org to be compatible with future versions of Office. By announcing this sea change, Microsoft may have neutralized the OpenDocument–only argument set forth by Massachusetts officials. Stay tuned!

 

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Figure 1. Document saving formats in StarOffice 8’s Writer word processing application.

OASIS

The OpenDocument format (ODF), short for the OASIS Open Document Format for Office Applications, is an open document file format for saving and exchanging editable office documents such as text documents (including memos, reports, and books), spreadsheets, charts, and presentations. This standard was developed by the OASIS industry consortium, based upon the XML-based file format originally created by OpenOffice.org.

The standard was publicly developed by a variety of organizations, is publicly accessible, and can be implemented by anyone without restriction. The OpenDocument format is intended to provide an open alternative to proprietary document formats including the popular but undocumented DOC, XLS, and PPT formats used by Microsoft Office, as well as Microsoft Office Open XML format (this latter format has various licensing requirements that prevent some competitors from using it). Organizations and individuals that store their data in an open format such as OpenDocument avoid being locked in to a single software vendor, leaving them free to switch software if their current vendor goes out of business, raises their prices, changes their software, or changes their licensing terms to something less favorable.

OpenDocument is the only standard for editable office documents that has been vetted by an independent recognized standards body, has been implemented by multiple vendors, and can be implemented by any supplier (including proprietary software vendors as well as developers using the non-proprietary GNU GPL).
In addition to StarOffice 8 and OpenOffice 2, a number of other office suite applications currently support OpenDocument: notable examples are IBM Workplace and the Google Desktop Search, which has an OpenDocument plug-in available. And, Corel and Novell recently announced their intention to support OpenDocument. See Reference 3 for a full discussion of OASIS.

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References

1. http://www.mass.gov/eoaf/open_formats_comments.html
2. http://www.eweek.com/article2/0,1895,1863060,00.asp
3. http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Open_Office_XML
4. Haugland, Solveig Openoffice.Org 2.X Resource Kit, Prentice Hall PTR (2006)
5. Miller, Robin Point & Click OpenOffice.org, Prentice Hall (2006)
6. Pitonyak, Andrew OpenOffice.org Macros Explained, Hentzenwerke Publishing (2004)
7. Woods,Dan Guliani, Gautam Open Source for the Enterprise, O'Reilly (2005)
8. Kieser, Brad Pro Open Office 2.0 Development, Apress (2006)
9. Gagné, Marcel Moving to Linux, Second Edition, Addison Wesley Professional (2006)
10. Perry, Greg OpenOffice.org – Teach Yourself, Sams Publishing (2005)
11. Amoroso, Donald, What’s New in Microsoft Office 2003, McGraw-Hill (2005)


Marcia Gulesian (c) 2005

About the Author

Marcia Gulesian is Chief Technology Officer of Gulesian Associates, a consulting firm that has advised corporations, universities, and governments worldwide. She is author of more than 100 articles on software development, its economics, and its management. You can email Marcia at This e-mail address is being protected from spambots. You need JavaScript enabled to view it

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