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Sun and the new Office space

Sun and the new Office space

I recall a dozen years ago, when I used to work in the developer tools distribution channel, a company from Germany released a solidly engineered cross-platform GUI (graphical user interface) library. As an exercise to demonstrate the capability and utility of its product, this company produced a fledgling word processor called StarWriter. Soon, other applications followed, and finally a full office suite called StarOffice, which acquired a strong following in Europe.

The company, StarDivision, made a few smart moves along the way. It made its office suite largely Microsoft Office-compatible and made full use of its cross-platform developer framework to produce versions of increasingly powerful software for platforms that Microsoft Office didn't support - Linux, Solaris and others. It also made one final smart move: selling the company to enterprise systems and software player Sun Microsystems.

Sun, in due course, has made some smart moves of its own, not the least of which is releasing the core StarOffice code-base under an open-source (GPL) licence.

Why was this a smart move? Well, if you are to compete against a firmly entrenched product such as Microsoft Office, published by a strongly leveraged competitor, you have to ensure that you don't play by its rules. Others (Corel, Borland and Lotus, for example) have tried that game and failed. By open-sourcing StarOffice (under the OpenOffice brand) Sun has given it the kind of launch pad that the previous competitors (WordPerfect Office and Smartsuite) could never have achieved. It has tens of millions of users (due to the zero-cost software) and guaranteed longevity (due to the open-source nature of the code-base), both of which will ensure ongoing viability for a business-grade office suite.

Now to some specifications. OpenOffice 1.0 (http://www.openoffice.org) forms the core of Sun's StarOffice 6.0 (http://wwws.sun.com/software/star/staroffice/6.0), so anything discussed with respect to one, applies to the other (with the obvious difference being the price). OpenOffice runs well on Windows, NT, 2000, XP, Linux, Solaris and is presently being tested on the MacOS X. OpenOffice provides near-complete replicas of Word, Excel, PowerPoint, HTML, chart and formulae creator as well as a very capable vector drawing package in the fashion of Corel Draw. Mailing lists, address labels and database access is also bundled. A VBA-like macro language and Excel-style macros are also supported. StarOffice incorporates all of the OpenOffice core application suite and adds some additional third-party components, such as a more powerful database interface, more fonts and clipart.

Obviously OpenOffice has to compete against the current industry standard for office suites. Microsoft Office is a great product, but so is the new OpenOffice suite, and both offer far more functionality than almost any user needs. Microsoft Office seems to acquire additional incrementally less useful features with each new release, which, like a remote control device whose designers encumber with more and more functions, often results in confusion and complexity for users. While OpenOffice can compete well as the near-perfect office suite for most of your customer market, its obvious competitive advantage over Microsoft's offering is very succinct: price. Deploying OpenOffice instead of Microsoft Office can save your clients perhaps $1,000 per seat.

As professionals, before making any decisions based solely on cost, we need to decide on which situations we recommend to clients they choose OpenOffice, and which situations we recommend they stick with their existing suite. If they use WordPerfect or Smartsuite heavily, then perhaps they should continue to use these applications. If they have extensive or complex Excel or VBA macros or DOC files, then they should continue using Microsoft Office. If your client uses line-of-business applications written in MS Access, then they should continue with Access and Microsoft Office, unless their application can be redeployed via the Access Runtime system. However, if your client has general office suite needs - needs to create and read Word, Excel and PowerPoint files, requires solid interoperation with Microsoft's Office suite and mandates that there must be minimal or no retraining of staff for any new office suite package - then OpenOffice is a strong contender.

If your client has a mixed environment of Windows, Sun or Linux workstations, OpenOffice is perhaps your best choice. Finally, as a recent Gartner report suggests, many of the firms adopting OpenOffice are best served if they analyse which of their staff have a strong business case for the continued use of Microsoft Office (perhaps 20 per cent of them) with the remainder getting OpenOffice. As the documents and templates can generally be interchanged between these staff groups and the application operation is uncannily similar in most respects, this strategy makes sense.

Why bother with OpenOffice, when you can keep selling Microsoft Office?

Well, there are a number of reasons. Firstly, there seems to be a considerable backlash against Microsoft's new Licensing 6.0 regime. SMEs and corporates are beginning to dislike being told when to jump and how high. Further, you will have noticed that there seems to be an increasing trend among some vendors to establish patterns of disintermediation targeting resellers, as they move to programs of ongoing software rental and online downloads, rather than pushing value-for-money packaged software through the channel.

In many ways it is in your strategic interests to leverage alternative platforms, or to at least be well versed in them, in case any single vendor decides to leave you out of the loop. Entrenching one vendor with a very broad product range makes that vendor all-powerful, and erodes your position. OpenOffice changes the dynamics dramatically in your favour by re-focusing the business relationship between you and your client back to where it should be.

Now, onto our business models for resellers and services firms. As Sun has produced a boxed set version of StarOffice 6.0, this can be resold to your clients as any other packaged application, also disproving Microsoft's claims that you cannot "sell" apps based on core open-source code. StarOffice sells for about one-sixth of the Microsoft Office equivalent. It also comes with a very liberal licence-reuse clause, allowing multiple re-installs on several computers. In all, a great value deal for your SME customers who like their software in boxed sets, and for your corporate customers who find value and comfort in Sun's enterprise-grade brand.

OpenOffice, being free and not immediately available to you in a boxed-set version for resale, is a different proposition altogether. There are numerous ways in which you can make this great application a revenue generator for your business. If you are a PC hardware assembler, reseller or distributor, you can pre-install OpenOffice on each Windows (or Windows/Linux dual-boot) PC you ship, substantially enhancing the value and differentiation of your product. If you are a VAR or consultancy, you can supply CD-R copies of OpenOffice to your clients and offer ancillary services, such as installation support and migration of templates or more complex macros from their previous office suite. You can also offer to undertake the more difficult tasks of configuration and integration of OpenOffice within existing MS Office environments. For those clients who are intrigued by OpenOffice but are concerned about the possible skill-limitation issues needed for full adoption, offer training. Finally, ongoing phone support, perhaps with a per-incident fee, is another way for your clients to feel at ease with the OpenOffice option, while generating revenue for you.

If you have even half a thought that OpenOffice isn't the real McCoy with regards to quality and functionality, I'll cut you a deal: download the Windows or Linux version, install it, trial it for a few weeks. If you do not consider it in any way a top-class product, I'll buy you a latte next time you're in Melbourne.

Finally, how can you help the OpenOffice development team? The answer is simple: download and use their software, and bring it to the attention of your clients. That's the act which makes the dev team's prodigious efforts all worthwhile.

Con Zymaris (conz@cyber.com.au) is CEO of IT professional services company Cybersource.


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