Skip the navigation

It's possible to ditch Microsoft Office

By Eugene Ciurana
April 14, 2004 12:00 PM ET

Computerworld - A little-known German company called Star Division spent most of the 1990s developing StarOffice, a feature-rich software suite. StarOffice, while incomplete, offered better-than-average compatibility with Microsoft Office and other office suites. It also featured excellent multiplatform availability.

Sun Microsystems Inc. bought StarOffice in 1999. The product suffered from many problems: It was a slow, monolithic application, and multipage documents could take five minutes to load. Sun released StarOffice with an open-source license in early 2000 under the name

Thousands of developers worldwide have contributed to revamping the application since.

Is today's OpenOffice good enough for the enterprise? For most jobs—word processing, presentations or spreadsheets—the answer is yes. Compatibility with Microsoft Office isn't a problem unless sophisticated macros are involved. Interoperability, the greatest hurdle to conquer on the way to adoption, is almost a nonissue. OpenOffice even offers features missing in Microsoft Office, like PDF or Flash data exports.

Microsoft argues that OpenOffice's total cost of ownership is higher due to installation and deployment costs. However, OpenOffice installation and deployment time and cost are equivalent to Microsoft Office's; they are smaller when considering licensing and the minimum hardware configuration costs. If users don't implement Microsoft Access databases, migration and testing costs are zero. This holds true in large corporations, where databases are centralized around Oracle, DB2 or SQL Server. If Access compatibility is required, only a single license is required to use those databases from several OpenOffice clients.

Migration costs of user support and retraining are equivalent to Microsoft Office upgrades, since the latter's user interface significantly changes between releases. Advanced users require little or no training using either, because of the similarities between the interfaces.

OpenOffice's spreadsheet offers a database view/query editor that is functionally equivalent to Access' and that can manipulate any commercial and open-source relational database—including Microsoft's.

OpenOffice advantages:

  • Investment and backward compatibility. OpenOffice can open and manipulate documents created with Word Version 2.0 and earlier, as well as older office tools like WordPerfect or Lotus 1-2-3, and save them in the standardized OpenOffice or Microsoft Office formats.

  • Security. Microsoft Office is touted as secure because of its attachment blocking, antivirus application programming interface and code-signing capabilities. These wouldn't be necessary if the underlying Windows infrastructure were truly secure. More viruses and Trojan horses are spread by Microsoft Office components like Outlook and application macros. OpenOffice is inherently more secure because its components are loosely coupled and don't involve artificial dependencies on the Web environment or the operating system that can be exploited by attackers.

  • Seamless information exchange. This is true only regarding other Microsoft products. Outlook provides excellent compatibility with Exchange but lousy interoperability with standard e-mail servers like IMAP. Importing data from SQL Server is relatively easy, but it's a hassle from industry-standard databases. OpenOffice runs on everything from Linux to Windows and can exchange data with Microsoft Office and other office suites.

  • The latest releases of Microsoft Office use XML data formats. At first it seems like a concession to openness. In reality, those formats are as proprietary as the old binary formats because Microsoft controls the document type definitions. Third-party interoperability may even be a violation of the Digital Millennium Copyright Act. OpenOffice data formats were developed openly, are licensed for free and are becoming widely adopted by other office suites.

  • Support. There are more people providing support for OpenOffice than for Microsoft Office. OpenOffice support is largely free and available through the Web site, through Usenet newsgroups, on various Internet Relay Chat channels and through local support groups. They are more responsive in solving bugs and providing assistance than Microsoft. For those who need commercial backing, Sun offers StarOffice licenses and support at significantly less cost than Microsoft.
Evaluation of OpenOffice shows that it provides better operational efficiency through its lower cost, interoperability, feature set and flexibility. Users with Windows, Unix or Mac OS X systems can interoperate seamlessly. OpenOffice's loosely coupled architecture results in a more robust suite and allows true choice in integrating with extra components such as e-mail clients, Web browsers or personal information managers. Extra components can come from commercial vendors or open-source. The source code is available so that organizations can tailor OpenOffice to any degree, or integrate its components into in-house applications without incurring license costs.

OpenOffice, like much open-source software and unlike Microsoft, strictly implements Internet, data-exchange and data-format standards; a complete list can be found at its Web site. Last, OpenOffice can interoperate with Microsoft Office and free an organization's mission-critical data from dependence on the whims of a single vendor.

OpenOffice isn't a direct replacement for Microsoft Office, however. An organization with a heavy investment in Microsoft office and back-office products might be better off deploying or keeping Microsoft Office as its standard office suite. Enterprises with heterogeneous desktop systems and standards-compliant back ends may gain significant cost and productivity advantages by adopting while maintaining document compatibility with their customers and suppliers. You can see for yourself if OpenOffice is for you. Just download and install it. It's free.

Eugene Ciurana is a senior systems architect with corporate clients in the U.S., Europe and Mexico, as well as a contributor to open-source projects (although none affiliated with OpenOffice).

Free vs. Licensed Open Office

Our Commenting Policies