Robots on the March

By Rick Jelliffe
April 26, 2009 | Comments: 2

Reading Richard Hillesley's IBM, Sun and OpenOffice.org at IT PRO, I was struck at certain rather glib assertion. Richard writes:

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.

Now I am not here talking about the disrupt the hegemony phrase. Competition and success are respectable goals, in my book.

Instead, I am talking about the bland assertion that OpenOffice is more than adequate to the needs of the 95 per cent of users. This is the same thing we hear about Linux. But dare we ask what it if it isn't in fact true in some significant sense?

When you use an application, it sets your expectations and the things you try to do. I find it hard to use any word processing application apart from Adobe FrameMaker, because it set my expectations. Word and Open Office and Word Perfect and the others I have tried are continually frustrating to me when I have to use them (Word Perfect is the least frustrating): they don't support my expectations and what I want to do.

Thanks to the Microsoft 'hegemony', most users in the world have had their perceptions formed by using Office or Word. It is just a competitive fact that has to be accepted and worked around; blythely ignoring it won't work. And numbers plucked out of the air (are they?) like 95% won't do: it smacks of telling the user what they need rather than seeing what formed their expectations: how they vote with their wallets.

Objectively, Open Office is a marvelous application. I think I have written before it is really state-of-the-art for about 1999. Office has bits that are more modern (the ribbon) and bits that are even mouldier (the flat paragraph model for example.) But acceptability is not just based on objective provision of features, on whether OpenOffice has feature X or misses it out; acceptability also has this human side.

To pick a concrete example from the recent past (one that I believe should be already obsolete): tables in presentations. Only a years ago or so, Open Office did not support tables in presentations. This made Open Office completely useless of any technical presentations, for sales presentations, and business use. It even made into non-normative applications profiles in ODF 1.0, if my memory serves me well: presentations don't need to support tables. And what did we hear from the Open Office people?: this kind of 95% rubbish. When marketing people say it, it is mere puff—can't blame a girl for trying, etc.

But when non-marketing people re-hash it, it becomes a Bush/Cheney/Addington/Rove like exercise in self-deception: OpenOffice is adequate therefore any lack of success must be due to duped and suckered users.

Now maybe people do need to be corralled, to have their expectations reset, in a kind of one-child-per-couple policy for office applications. Maybe that is the only workable thing for institutions that want to break free. But it needs to be based on objective validation that people's work will be able to continue with the given feature set, not some blythe magic number.

For Open Office, I think they have only two viable options: either they aggressively try to feature-match Microsoft Office, at least at the coarse level, or they aggressively persue zigging where Microsoft zags: moving into new areas and better abstractions.

At the moment, OpenOffice tries to compete with the version of Office two or three before the most recent version, it seems to me. They have this idea that they will catch people at upgrade time: an Office 2000 user looking at upgrading to Office 2007, and instead seeing that OpenOffice is better than Office 2000 and free.

OpenOffice is now, to a certain extent, driven by ODF. So it is reasonable to look at what is in the pipeline for the next version of ODF: so-called ODF Next-Gen. Will it support a similar feature set to Office 2007? I have not seen any explicit requests for it to do so: I have been loathe to submit supporting the features of Office 2007 better as a requirement because I am not sure that it would go down well, coming from me. But I don't see how Open Office can compete against the moving target of user expectations, unless it gets more systematic about this. I hope I am wrong.


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2 Comments

I'm not so sure that the file format is (or should be) the driver of features. There is a lot in terms of server integration that both could benefit from. MS office has tied itself to Sharepoint, which is pain to use -OOo could do something similar, presumably now to an Oracle database.

Where Office 2003 is ahead of OOo is in overall usability. I have used both, and many aspects of OOo are painful in comparision. I have, for example, learned to exit OOo every time I add a new word to the dictionary, as it only saves that file when exiting cleanly, which is an event I dont see often enough.

That said, I think Office 2007 is a step backwards. As well as a CPU/memory hog, its whole context-strip at the top ends up taking a fifth of the vertical area of a wide screen laptop, and not delivering what I want. Similarly, the focus the tools now have on formatting text by editing font values (in the pop up formatting bar) rather than choosing styles to use just discourages styling. Clearly MS have given up on having the mass market understand styles, and just gone for fonts everywhere, but that just makes it hard to work with content written by others.

Steve: I am sure it shouldn't be the only driver. But when people demand a single unified format, and then disallow any extension mechanisms, then you do indeed have the file format well and truly in the driver's seat.

(Or, more probably, you have developers forced into "tag abuse" to squeeze their needed semantics into the standard elements.)

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