Expert predicts OpenOffice revolution

OpenOffice guru Solveig Haugland says more enterprises are considering the open source office suite. In this interview, she explains the challenges of moving to OpenOffice, hurdles companies are likely to encounter and whether companies should attempt getting over them.

"The world is approaching the tipping point for switching over to open source, including OpenOffice.org." Them's fightin' words, and the woman who spoke them -- Solveig Haugland -- isn't afraid to fight against the juggernaut that is Microsoft Office. She's firmly in the open source office suite camp and, in this interview, she cites several major corporations and organizations that have joined her there. Then she offers how-to advice...

about migrating to OpenOffice.org and straight talk about which businesses should and should not dump Office.

Haugland isn't just an open source enthusiast. She is an OpenOffice.org and StarOffice instructor and a SearchEnterpriseLinux.com Ask the Expert advisor. She's also co-author, with Floyd Jones, of three how-to books, the latest being OpenOffice.Org 1.0 Resource Kit from Prentice Hall PTR.

Can you name any large corporations that have moved their desktops from Microsoft Office to OpenOffice.org or StarOffice?

Haugland: There are quite a few. Of course, Sun Microsystems, with approximately 30,000 employees, has been using StarOffice exclusively for a few years. Ernie Ball Music has gone totally Linux after their much-publicized break from Microsoft. The city of Munich is resolutely OpenOffice.org/StarOffice, even after a visit from Steve Ballmer and other high-ups at Microsoft. The Australian phone company bought 89,000 StarOffice seats a few months ago. The U.S. Department of Defense had 25,000 StarOffice seats, last I heard.

Sys admins have told us that they believe that a migration from MS Office to OpenOffice.org would be difficult. Why should a large company -- say, one with more than 1,000 users -- do it?

Haugland: You're right that it wouldn't be a small job. With that many users, you have social engineering as well as IT challenges. Here are some reasons to face the task:

-- I think, and evidence in backing this up, that the world is approaching the tipping point for switching over to open source, including OpenOffice.org. The Swedish government is considering kicking Microsoft Office out of all government agencies. As I said earlier, the city of Munich has already done so. Schools across the U.S. are switching to OpenOffice.org, which means that, in 10 to 15 years, those kids are going to be entering the work force used to using OpenOffice.org.

-- Open source means that if you've got the need and the resources, you can modify OpenOffice by adding features, modifying it, changing prompts and messages, whatever you want to do. With a proprietary product like Microsoft Office, you take what you're given.

-- Aside from the money you spend every year just on [Microsoft Office] licenses, there's the administrative cost of handling the licenses and just brain cycles being used on keeping up to date. No one from OpenOffice.org is going to fine you for using an out-of-date version.

-- The core features of OpenOffice.org are quite similar to Microsoft Office, with Calc being the most similar to Excel, and PowerPoint and Impress having somewhat fewer similarities. So, the basics of writing and formatting a standard document, and putting together a standard spreadsheet, shouldn't be much of a hurdle to learn.

Aren't there plenty of reasons why a large business shouldn't go from MS Office to OpenOffice.org?

Haugland: Here are a couple of deal killers. OpenOffice.org is probably not right for you right now if your business processes absolutely require extensive use of Excel macros or complex PowerPoint animations. Also, it's not for you if you must exchange editable documents that have exacting formatting requirements with other companies who show no sign of switching to OpenOffice.org.

However, if you currently do those things, but they're not a business requirement, it's worth thinking about what would happen if you used other techniques to achieve what you're getting with those features now.

Can you go into more detail about how to decide if OpenOffice.org is right for a company?

Haugland: Here are some tips on how to go about evaluating whether you should switch:

-- Ask a couple of employees or an outside resource to evaluate the task and see what would be involved. [They should] take a few weeks, look at the conversion issues, the complexity of current tasks and thus training issues, and see what you're in for.

-- Look at the features to see what your users currently use, what they need, and what work would be like for them in OpenOffice.org.

-- Look at how much money you'd save over the next 10 to 20 years, not only on licenses for MS Office, but on license administration, support costs, etc.

What should an IT shop or business do to test the OpenOffice.org waters?

Haugland: I'd suggest asking for a small department within your company to volunteer to use OpenOffice.org for a couple months, and then tell you what it's like.

So, a company decides to make a switch. Can you offer some tips that will help them avoid missteps?

Haugland: Here are some specific features that can help them:

-- Get to know the print settings for spreadsheets. In the spreadsheet, choose Format/Page and get to know the settings in the Page and Sheet tabs. This combined with making sure the printer itself is set up correctly in your operating system settings will take care of virtually all spreadsheet printing issues.

-- Don't set up OpenOffice to automatically save in Microsoft Office format. This seems like a good idea when you still interact with people using Microsoft Office files. However, on some versions of the software, the print settings and formatting settings aren't saved when the OpenOffice document is saved in MS without being saved first in OpenOffice format. So, avoid that setting (in the Tools/Options window). If users need to send a document to someone who's using MS Office only, it's simple to just save the document as a Word, Excel or PowerPoint file (File/Save As).

-- Get to know the data source features. OpenOffice has exceptionally powerful abilities to connect to just about any data source: Access, Oracle, a simple spreadsheet, and anything in between.

-- Get to know the features for creating and printing mail merge letters, envelopes, and so on. For example, use the Synchronize Contents check box in the Options tab of the labels setup window -– you can then make any changes to one label in the resulting labels document and then make all other labels adopt those changes.

Here's another example: Make sure you've got the right label type selected in the Labels tab of the setup window. For envelopes, just choose Insert/Envelope and fill in the setup window. The key thing is to make sure that your printer is set up to print the same size envelope as the envelope document you create.

Finally, to create a mail merge document like a letter to several customers in your data source, just choose File/Autopilot/Letter. Then to print, in versions prior to 1.1, just choose File/Form Letter. (In 1.1, it's just File/Print.)

Do you have any tips for overcoming users' resistance to change?

Haugland: Let users know exactly what will be happening, then get them excited and involved. Have contests to see which department can get switched over to OpenOffice first, or identify people who have influence within the company and [get] them excited about OpenOffice. You'll make a lot more progress with cooperative and motivated users.

FOR MORE INFORMATION:

Ask Solveig Haugland your OpenOffice questions.

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