Linux desktop adoption barriers: Microsoft Office may out-feature OpenOffice, but...

In the David-Goliath matchup between OpenOffice 2.0 and Microsoft Office, the little guy is not up to the job of toppling the giant. So say some IT managers who responded heartily to my column about barriers to Linux desktop adoption. Others in the industry disagree, of course, and that's what is fueling the Office versus OpenOffice debate.

My job is, for the most part, to talk and pen-pal with IT managers. When they talk to me about Linux desktops adoption, the barriers they cite most often are (1) user resistance to dumping Office and (2) the lack of hardware support for Linux. So, in the column in question -- Two ways Microsoft sabotages Linux desktop adoption -- I shared two IT pros' stories on those topics. In short, these were their stories:

  • Shaun Holt's migration from Office to the open source office suites, OpenOffice, had faltered. He is technical director of Merchant Pagan, a United Kingdom IT services group.
  • Andy Canfield had troubles with hardware support for Linux laptops. Canfield heads Arakka Limited, a Thailand consultant.

Holt's and Canfield's stories spurred dozens of calls and messages containing flames, validations and advice. In this column, I drill down to the core issues -- the nuggets of IT pros' reactions to Holt's OpenOffice experience. An upcoming column will focus on the hardware support issues raised by Canfield and others who responded to my column.

OpenOffice = Microsoft Office circa 1997

In the column, I explained how Holt's project was undermined by OpenOffice's chart and table creation shortcomings and by a group of stalwart and vocal Microsoft Office users.

Most respondents agreed that OpenOffice 2.0 simply has fewer capabilities than Microsoft Office 2000, XP and 2003. OpenOffice would only be a step up in functionality if a company migrates from an old version of Microsoft Office, say from 1997.

OpenOffice has some irritating and serious shortcomings and features. Here are some examples cited in the feedback received:

    More on the Linux desktop:

    Barriers to Linux desktop adoption

    Finding hidden treasures in OpenOffice 2.0's Charting Wizard

    Working wonders with OpenOffice 2.0's Web Wizard

    Expert advice: Making the move to OpenOffice in your enterprise

  • Copying Office charts, tables and spreadsheets from Office to OpenOffice usually ends in dissatisfaction.

    "Problems to read and process Excel tables and scanned images pasted into Word .doc files are not minor," wrote IT manager Basia Glowacka of Gdansk, Poland. In OpenOffice, Excel tables are read as images, and much data is lost in translation. That makes sharing spreadsheets with external users using Microsoft Office difficult, if not impossible.

  • OpenOffice chart and table creation tools are not as easy to use as the Microsoft equivalents, and the end results don't look as good.
  • Forget about importing Word documents containing scanned images to OpenOffice. You'll just lose the images.

    Several people said that creating a database is a crash-filled experience using OpenOffice 2.0. And connecting to existing databases is tough, too. (If you're having the same problems, check out Solveig Haugland's tips on using OpenOffice 2.0's database tool.)

  • Several people were annoyed because the tab button acts as "enter" in OpenOffice 2.0.

Stop whining and embrace change

There's a contingent of IT folks, however, who discount these complaints about OpenOffice. IT pro Carl Hilton Jones sums up this group's stance: "A surprisingly large number of people can't tell the difference between the concepts 'different' and 'defective.' They will automatically label anything that doesn't look exactly like Microsoft as 'defective.' Of course, this never applies to changes that Microsoft makes."

Viva la difference! So, you have to hit "tab" instead of "enter." Just do it. Get out of your rut!

This pro-change contingent was horrified that Holt's OpenOffice migration was failing because a vocal minority rebelled -- even though 80% of users were satisfied. It's rare that 80% of users are satisfied with any application migration, they said. In this case, Holt's project was a success, particularly considering the savings accrued by those 80% using a less expensive application.

"Does this mean that if 20% of the people in the organization object to Windows that Windows adoption has faltered? "Of course not," said Jones. "Microsoft is not held to the same standard as any other company."

OpenOfffice.org has Microsoft beat hands down in cost, and it gives a lot of functionality away for free.

The cost savings alone of OpenOffice can make it worthwhile to change old habits. "The compelling reason to use OpenOffice and any other free or lower-cost open source product is that every dollar spent on software is a dollar that doesn't go to serve clients," said Joe Foran, IT director for FSW, a social services company in Westport, Conn.

Lower cost alone makes many people willing to adapt to its differences and be creative about filling the functionality gaps. The teachers at International School of Latvia, for example, use Mandriva 2006, OpenOffice 2.0 and GIMP, according to Christian Blessing, technology coordinator. GIMP, the GNU Image Manipulation Program, fills the gaps in OpenOffice's graphics capabilities.

Another gap-filler is StarOffice, which gives users of graphics, tables and charts the tools they need, according to several IT managers and Point-and-Click OpenOffice 2.0 author Robin Miller.

Want to stop Microsoft Office devotees from punching holes in an OpenOffice migration? These options were suggested most often in the messages and calls we received:

  • Give them no choice. Blessing, for example, only issued PCs running OpenOffice 2.0 and offered no dual-booting options. "A bit of grumbling occurred along the way, but with no option to turn back, we found workarounds for every issue," he said.
  • Get management to make it clear that non-compliance with the OpenOffice migration would be a bad career choice. Loyalty to the company's ability to save money on software should be more important than loyalty to a product. After all, how many people could get by with refusing to use their company's e-mail or CRM software?

Taking a more positive approach, management could offer a bonus to those who learn to use OpenOffice the quickest.

  • Don't tell users more than they need to know. Just tell them that you're upgrading the office suite. Power users may need more information and options, like StarOffice or dual-booting, but most users do not have to be involved in brand selections.
  • Give power users both OpenOffice 2.0 and Microsoft Office, but encourage them to use the former for most tasks.

Even advocates know the perils of bucking Microsoft

Refusing to switch to OpenOffice because of irritating incompatibilities between Microsoft Office and OpenOffice may be questionable, but people generally agree that the switch requires more than a surface assessment. That's because Microsoft's dominance of the software marketplace has created an exclusionary IT world. Many third-party applications are written to integrate only with Microsoft Office. Those applications' reports, for instance, are produced in Office friendly formats. This puts an onus on companies considering migrating to OpenOffice to check all its applications for compatibility.

In some cases, the limitations presented by legacy applications may rule out a switch to OpenOffice. But, advocates say, put OpenOffice on hold, and don't hang up the phone. Even application compatibility problems can be changed over time. When upgrade time on those apps rolls around, or even before that time, evaluate some replacements that are not controlled by Microsoft. Offer OpenOffice as a dual-boot option to willing users, maybe with a little incentive attached.

Any steps made toward a Linux desktop are steps away from being locked in to just one product. The fact that you are prepared to change gives your company leverage in negotiating contracts and the ability to move quickly to service a major customer who already broke through the barriers to Linux desktop adoption.

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