Just as I was writing that I was about to go on vacations, some story had to break about OpenOffice.org. Essentially, the news are about Microsoft discussing OpenOffice.org as a competitor. That’s interesting, usually Microsoft does not like to speak about competitors coming from the Free Software Community, except when it’s about patents on code it allegedly infringes.
So Kevin Turner, COO of Microsoft makes some interesting points about OpenOffice.org; but I would also like to react about Matt Asay’s own blog about OpenOffice.org as a weak competitor to MS Office. In some way, I found Matt Asay’s blog to be very much unfair to OpenOffice.org, but I will come to that later. Microsoft’s words on OpenOffice.org are unusually fair, not so much because they take into account OpenOffice.org as a competitor, but because they describe very well the reality of the “good enough”. True, the market wants good enough products to use, especially in these troubled times. But how you measure good enough is where the devil hides (as it were, he always hides in details, doesn’t he?).
By coining the issue of the “good enough”, Kevin Turner describes perhaps unwillingly what the market wants, what the market believes it consciously wants and what it’s really running after. OpenOffice.org does not qualify as a good enough competitor office suite: this office platform has been around for a over 15 years in its different incarnations, and expert features have been around just like in MS Office. It would be perhaps good to remind that about 90% of office productivity suites users only use about 10% of the features existing in every full-fledged office suite from any vendor. What this means is that customers usually don’t use these suites to their full extent. What this also means is that “good enough” is pretty hard to define. I think it can mean two distinct things: either good enough means that products are very much interchangeable feature-wise, or it means that nobody has a clue what are the actual product requirements in order to rationally choose one and not the other.
My preference goes to the second definition. After several years of analyzing migrations and deployments of OpenOffice.org, having talked to people in charge of the migration at various level of executive positions, I can pretty much say that people often don’t know why they stick to MS Office. But they generally tend to know why they want to get away from it. Most of the time, it’s not because of a feature they would absolutely miss if they were to switch office suites; this is an argument for status quo that is often pushed forward, but 99% of these “special features” are not so special. Competitors offer the same or similar ones. But it’s fear, laziness, and issues that exist inside the organization that hinder migrations. I read Kevin Turner’s speaking Outlook as a key value in MS Office and as something that OpenOffice.org does not offer. I get the feeling two things are being completely overlooked here: You don’t pack features in software like you do with a car. This is software after all, and it’s immaterial, unlike a car. Mr Turner’s points may have been valid in the context of a car brand’s qualities compared to another. Do we really think people cannot deal with downloading a separate mail/groupware client ? If that is so, I think this is a wrong way of looking at things. The real stickiness to Outlook is the Exchange servers that lock customers and hinder them from moving to another solution, not any special features (Zimbra anyone?). And in the end, good enough also means that once you broke on through all these gimmicks, half of the market finds out it really just needs something to type in notes and letters, and do some bit of accounting. For the rest, such as presentations, either grab Apple’s Keynote if you know what you’re doing, or stick to Powerpoint or Impress if you really feel like inflicting your poor artistic tastes to the rest of your colleagues. Which does just really mean: open an account on Google Docs or Zoho. Period.
Customer lock-in is something that drive people away from MS Office. I understand that Mr Turner keynotes Microsoft’s business partners and therefore talks in terms of market opportunities; but although SharePoint may be a great business opportunity for the Microsoft ecosystem, it’s a formidable capture engine for its customers. SharePoint has slowly become the foundation of Microsoft office platform, and one should not expect any sort of openness there. It’s a bit like a mousetrap: it looks appealing, you can get in but never go out; it’s a proprietary and non-standard realm by definition.
OpenOffice.org on the other hand, has something else to offer: Freedom. Freedom to use, freedom to improve, freedom to distribute, freedom to go away. Not less money for you and more gasoline to pay for. The time for pork-barrel spending progressively comes to an end in IT. True, OpenOffice.org does not benefit from a very large partner’s ecosystem (read “ISV”) and I understand that you will not feel alone if you have just acquired your expensive license to use Outlook and Word. I’m pretty sure that someone out there will also sell you something else, like business intelligence applications that “seamlessly integrates with Microsoft Office”. This usually means that their standard output is a *.csv file whose extension is renamed to “.xls” on the fly so that you can open it with Excel (or with OpenOffice.org Calc!) and send it via Outlook to your colleague next door without him gasping in horror at the sight of a new file format. That will be 354 Euros per seat my dear. By the way, are you part of these people who rename “.xlx” extensions (MS OOXML for spreadsheets) to “.xls” so that other people around can read your file and hope nobody else will notice you messed with the file format? Because if that’s the case, you are part of Microsoft’s problems.
And that’s what Matt Asay has apparently not understood. Matt’s problem here is that he reacts exactly like any open source software pundit: there’s always a good way to remind the Beardies how lame and unprofessional they are. Matt seems to be expecting that the OpenOffice.org project orders market analysis on a monthly basis. Matt seems to have some trouble understanding why an office suite that is not properly marketed with a commercial entity behind it may make inroads. Last but not least, Matt does not seem to consider OpenOffice.org (that’s OpenOffice.org to you and anybody else, Matt) as a credible competitor to MS Office. On what ground does he draw these conclusions is not clear to me. But there is something I know about Matt’s employer, Alfresco: Alfresco as a platform is a very interesting and important success for the Free and Open Source Software progress. It shows that you don’t have to be a complex, gas-guzzling, feature packed document management system to compete head to head with SharePoint. In fact, I hear Alfesco software is really popular. And Alfresco does also “seamlessly integrate” with OpenOffice.org thanks to an OpenOffice.org extension that allows you to upload and download your documents to and from the Alfresco system. Why am I telling you all this? Much of the success of Alfresco is correlated to the success of OpenOffice.org, and vice-versa. When an organization turns to an Open Source document management system, it tends to look for lower prices, affordable service fee, and no lock-in. Which means the very same organization has completed or is contemplating a migration to OpenOffice.org, which, incidentally offers the same benefit.
Who’s eating the other’s crumbs now?