Is Oracle Quietly Killing OpenOffice?

I’m certain, given the things that have, or in some cases, have not, happened since the completion of the sale of Sun to Oracle, that many would have wished that IBM had purchased the flailing company. Those seeing the commitment of IBM to many open source projects would tend to believe that the progress of the many Sun projects would be better served under the aegis of IBM.

As it is, many are wondering what is going to happen to the many Sun projects, with the Java stream being probably the only thing not in some cloud of possible excision from living efforts.

From Forrester Research, by way of ZDNet, a column is written addressing the many problems that OpenOffice faces, many of which have sprung from the recent change of topmost support.

Like many OpenOffice.org adopters, Forrester’s enterprise clients are starting to wonder what’s going on with the once-promising open source alternative to Microsoft Office. As one chief technology strategist posited last week: “Oracle has made several strong public pronouncements that their support for OpenOffice.org will continue abated. This, however, begs the question of the increasing functional and technical gap between standard programs like word processing, spreadsheets, and presentations and the new, all-encompassing view of the desktop being adopted by Microsoft in Office 2010. That being so, is there really any future for StarOffice/OpenOffice.org within the enterprise, except as an ever-shrinking niche to support basic, ultra low-cost office document capability on home-use platforms?”

I wonder why anything from the OpenOffice team should be abated in any way, as Mr. Ellison, if indeed he does have some ideas about taking on Microsoft’s space, in even a small way, will be better served by having a vibrant code base to cull the new Oracle (Sun?) Office from. That was, after all, the way that it was previously done by Sun – the OpenOffice product was the forge for what went into the Sun Office product, with small differences added to induce a sense of higher usefulness now and then.

Great question. After 10 years, OpenOffice hasn’t had much traction in the enterprise – supported by under 10% of firms, and today it’s facing more competition from online apps from Google and Zoho. I’m not counting OpenOffice completely out yet, however, since IBM has been making good progress on features with Symphony and Oracle is positioning OpenOffice for the web, desktop and mobile – a first. But barriers to OpenOffice and Web-based tools persist, and not just on a feature/function basis. Common barriers include:

  • Third-party integration requirements. Some applications only work with Office. For example, one financial services firm I spoke with was forced to retain Office because its employees needed to work with Fiserv, a proprietary data center that is very Microsoft centric. “What was working pretty well was karate chopped.” Another firm rolled out OpenOffice.org to 7,00 users and had to revert back 5,00 of them when they discovered one of the main apps they work with only supported Microsoft.
  • User acceptance. Many firms say that they can overcome pretty much all of the technical issues but face challenges around user acceptance. One firm I spoke with went so far as to “customize” their OpenOffice solution with a Microsoft logo and told employees it was a version of Office. The implementation went smoothly. Others have said that they have met resistance from business users who didn’t want Office taken off their desktop. Other strategies include providing OpenOffice to only new employees and to transition through attrition. But this can cause compatibility issues.
  • Lack of seamless interoperability with Office. Just like third-party apps may only work with Office, many collaborative activities force use of particular versions of Office. Today’s Web-based and OpenOffice solutions do not provide seamless round tripping between Office and their applications. Corel, with its just released WordPerfect X5, probably does the best job, along with Thinkfree, a web-based, low-cost Microsoft alternative. But while it’s possible to open Microsoft Office documents in Google Apps and OpenOffice, there may be features, macros, and formatting missing, and outputting back to an Office format may also result in inconsistencies. This means that iWorkers that need to collaborate on content may revert to PDFs or other more cumbersome approaches to achieve interoperability.
  • Legacy content support.For companies that have a lot of legacy content in Office applications, there is also the potential need to access and manipulate these documents. Most companies Forrester talks to find that only a small percentage of legacy content remains active, usually less than 20%, but if this content supports critical business processes and has macros, links, or other formatting that could be impacted, then it poses a risk of not being usable. Generally this content can be isolated and remediated or recreated, but there’s effort involved to do this. And this content also tends to be core to the business and based on structured templates, like contracts or customer correspondence, which make the effort to redo these materials in an alternative difficult if the alternative doesn’t have the rich functionality needed like mail merge or watermarks, or if there are embedded macros that need to get recreated as widgets.

The third party requirements are a minor problem, as worst, as there are not that many things needing absolute integration with Office. The ones that do, that I have been exposed to, are having their own problems with newer versions of Office, so they need to be updated anyway. Perhaps if a solid commitment from Oracle was there, the companies might devote their dollars to a change to OpenOffice compatibility. Instead, some feel as though they might unknowingly be walking a plank, being retracted at an unknown rate.

User acceptance is something I have never understood. If you go to work somewhere, and the employer states that a certain set of programs is what you will use, you usually don’t grumble, other than to yourself, about it. You simply do your job, and  thank your chosen deity that you are only there forty or so hours per week. In the case of OpenOffice, it is hardly punishment, only  a difference in structure, which can be quickly navigated if there is no ongoing enmity towards the effort. For myself, it takes too much effort to keep up the vigil of animosity.

Seamless integration? It will never happen, thanks to Microsoft. Thanks to the same thought process that yielded “The job’s not done, until Novell won’t run” in the days of DOS, Microsoft Office will continue to evolve to frustrate any attempts at perfect integration.

For the legacy content support, see my above comment, it is the same story here.

With all of these barriers it’s no wonder OpenOffice isn’t better represented in enterprises. But there is hope: IBM/Lotus has been investing more heavily in the past few years in its Lotus Symphony suite to add advanced features like pivot tables and better round tripping with Microsoft Office. It’s also slated to be integrated into LotusLive, the online collaboration and email platform, and it may become integrated with IBM’s Project Vulcan. Similarly, Novell could seek to integrate OpenOffice with Pulse and Google Wave, but has other potential distractions with its imminent sale. Oracle isn’t offering much detail on its plans for OpenOffice.org, but I expect to hear news by midyear. Oracle has committed to making the first industry OpenOffice solution available on the web, desktop, and mobile though has offered no time lines. This would be a giant step forward if it delivers on this promise.

The code bases for Lotus, Novell, and Oracle/Sun are also slated to synch this year, which will help provide more unity between the OpenOffice versions, though there’s still division since IBM’s version is Eclipse-based.

So, if IBM, Novell, and Oracle can successfully integrate OpenOffice into their collaboration and content management solutions, OpenOffice could see sunny days ahead as it becomes blended with the Information Workplace experience of these vendors. This suggests OpenOffice is more likely to make its way into enterprises surreptitiously than as a conscious choice for a low-cost alternative tool set. So, yes, I do see a future for OpenOffice in the enterprise — one that’s closely tied to integration with collaboration, content management, and business processes and facilitated by the likes of Oracle and IBM. But even then, it likely serves still as a complement to Microsoft Office, not a replacement for those 20-30% of iWorkers requiring the richer capabilities of Microsoft Office for the foreseeable future.

It will be very good to see the code bases merged, as a common effort always gains more speed with less difficulty. Many hands making light work and all that you know.

As to the possibility of a non-OpenOffice solution, I have absolutely no idea what IBM was thinking when it did not simply resurrect its Office competitor from the ‘90s, Symphony. The real Symphony,which was a product that became IBM when it acquired Lotus, was a good alternative to the the Microsoft product of the time, and since it included a database product, along with a few other integration items, that should have been the Symphony that IBM brought to us, not a rebadged, and behind-the-curve OpenOffice-without-database product.

As someone that started out when dBase III+ from Ashton-Tate was popular, I have always wondered why it was that Microsoft decided that most people did not need the use of a database, and instead moved the many into a bastardized effort with a spreadsheet instead.

So will OpenOffice continue to grow, or slowly wither and die? I’d say it depends not on the business users, because they were an afterthought anyway. OpenOffice is for the home or small business user, and is a hedge against total domination by Microsoft – enough to keep them honest. After all, the latest news is that Microsoft’s own implementation of OOXML doesn’t conform to the format it put forth on its own, and was adopted as the ISO standard. If Microsoft cannot keep compatible to its own standards, what possibility does any other party have of it?

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  • Nick

    OpenOffice.org is dead, LIbreOffice took it’s place