In-depth

IBM, Sun and OpenOffice.org

During the ongoing flirtation between IBM and Sun Microsystems, little has been said about OpenOffice.org, which has been viewed as one of the less significant parts of Sun's open source portfolio.

By most measurements, OpenOffice.org has been a success, with downloads reaching into the hundreds of millions.

But still, it can be argued that OpenOffice.org has not yet achieved what it set out to do, to break the mould and disrupt the hegemony of Microsoft Office.

OpenOffice.org may lack the more esoteric features, but is more than adequate to the needs of the 95 per cent of users, in the office and in the home, who need to write documents, keep spreadsheets, make presentations, and filter information throughout the organisation in a standard format - Open Document Format (ODF) - which is freely available to others. OpenOffice.org and its derivatives such as StarOffice, NeoOffice, Lotus Symphony and Red Flag's RedOffice are popular with Linux users and in Asia.

Nonetheless, OpenOffice.org has not entirely fulfilled its early promise, and it is interesting to speculate how IBM, or Sun itself, might change that reality.

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Saving the world

The office suite on our desktop was sold to us as a productivity enhancer that would change our working lives, give us power at our fingertips, improve communication, and rid us of bureaucratic control.

Some of that promise has come true. Word processors, spell checkers, and the other gizmos associated with the typical office suite have brought massive productivity gains to particular sectors of business, to marketing managers and salespeople, to secretaries and clerical workers, and in doing so, have coincidentally saved the world from the dubious smudge of Tippex.

But the office suite, brilliantly rebranded as the 'productivity' suite, long ago spread from its original preserve on the secretarial desk to the computer of every worker in the organisation, sometimes with detrimental effects. The sale of office suites has been predicated not on functionality, but on the nonconformance of data formats between different releases of the same software.

Each office suite on each desktop comes at a premium, with a word processor, a spreadsheet and a visual presentation tool, crammed with features that are never used, and demands an upgrade every other year to conform with the latest proprietary data format. The content hasn't changed. The functionality hasn't changed. But the upgrade is essential to keep the cycle going.

The upgrade cycle is essential to maintain single vendor lock-in. Single vendor lock-in serves to exclude competition. Lack of competition tends to inhibit innovation. Part of the solution to the problem is open standards and common data formats. A common data format between different applications for the storage and transfer of office documents not only breaks the monopoly on the desktop, but gives the end user some assurance of the integrity and security of documents and data.

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As an organisation that has remodelled itself as a service company, IBM has understood this well, and has been a primary mover behind the uptake of ODF and the acceptance of ODF as an open standard. For the same reason IBM has flirted with OpenOffice.org, and has particpated in OpenOffice.org development.

At the very least every Office user has an interest in the success of OpenOffice.org, if only because success for it will necessitate a modification in the behaviour of Microsoft, an opening up of the market and a reduction in prices.

Obscured by clouds

But successful as OpenOffice.org has been in projecting itself into many organisations and the consciousness of many users, it has not broken the grip of Microsoft Office on the desktop - despite quite possibly being more like Microsoft Office than Office 2007.

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