John Chamberlain
Developer Diary
 Developer Diary · You Heard It Here First · Wednesday 31 December 2003
OpenOffice Leads Return to Low-Cost Software
When personal computers first became widely available in the 1980s productivity software could be had for $50 or so like today's games. As the Microsoft/Lotus monopolies gathered steam, however, those companies jacked prices into the hundreds. By 1992 AmiPro sold for $500, Microsoft Word for $300 and WordPerfect for $200. That kind of pricing still holds sway. Microsoft Office, for example, lists for $400.

What's changed is that now that licensing is being enforced. The recent versions of Microsoft software phone home using the internet and will not function until they have been "registered". If you need to re-install the software you are out of luck. You have to shell out another $400. Before companies could always squeeze extra installs out of a CD but now they have to buy a new CD for every PC enormously increasing the hassle and expense of maintaining common productivity software.

This is driving rebellious users into the arms of free and near-free software. The leader in this category is OpenOffice currently published by Sun. It costs less than $100 and once you have bought the CD you can repetitively install it. When I first heard about OpenOffice it was called "Star Office" and was skeptical especially since it had Java components. How good could this be? Then when I led a technical session at JavaOne 2002 Sun required all the presenters to use Star Office. I used Writer and the Power Point clone extensively. Both I thought were really functional and good.

Since that time OpenOffice has grown into a real competitor. Microsoft sneers at OpenOffice and says it is like using Word 97. What a coincidence, that's the exact version of Word I use and would not trade for anything. I treasure that CD because I know it's not spyware--it will never phone home and report on me to Microsoft and I can install it on as many machines as I need to. Once I tried to install Word 2000 on a machine only to find out that CD had been registered somewhere else and the CD was therefore useless. Today I would never even consider trying to use spyware Microsoft stuff because there are better, cheaper alternatives that don't spy on me.

What is even more interesting is that Writer may even be a better product than Word. Word has basically been unchanged from even before the Word97 version I use: total development stagnation. Writer on the other hand has many signicant improvements. For example, it can directly output PDF files which is crucial for many people; it's styling system is vastly better; and it's frame capabilities approach that of a page layout or publishing program. Overall it's price-performance ratio kills Word.

So far Microsoft is pretending like nothing happened, but users are rebelling. Many government users and large companies who can't take the punishing licensing costs are either switching to OpenOffice and other similar software or are actively studying the idea. In the long term this should bring prices down significantly.

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