Monday, 1 October 2007

Does matter to the mainstream?

I was clicking around on one of the news sites a few days ago and came across reference to a service portfolio called 'Open Office' that mobile operator Orange launched in the UK earlier this month. It's all about remote working, but it's not the Orange service per se that made me think.

Having been doing a lot of research in the desktop computing space recently, the open source alternative to Microsoft Office,, was the thing I immediately thought of when I read reports of the Orange announcement. It was then that I realised that the prominence of the term ‘Open Office’ in my mind was almost certainly unrepresentatively high compared to the mainstream. As a branding and marketing savvy outfit, my guess is that Orange would not have chosen this term if it felt that it already had a significantly strong meaning and association out there that would confuse its target audience.

The truth is, of course, that it probably doesn’t. We in the IT profession are more likely to be familiar with it because of the ongoing debate about Microsoft dominance coupled with the noise made by open source evangelists to promote alternatives. But out in the mainstream proper, business people just get on with using Microsoft Office, blissfully unaware of all this – and, in fact, not really that bothered about finding an alternative at all.

We came across some pretty clear evidence of this back in April when we conducted some research in association with The Register news site. You would think that if anything, this would have been biased towards open source advocates (given the nature of the site), but even here, the message was that use of and interest in MS Office alternatives, whether open source or online (e.g. Google Office), is currently very limited outside of a few niches, with much more sentiment of the kind “if it ain’t broke don’t fix it” than anything else.

Whether you think this is good, bad or just doesn’t matter at all is immaterial, that is how it is.

From a personal point of view I am torn. While I strongly endorse the idea of competition, I am also a pragmatist, and common sense (and feedback from a few thousand respondents during research over the past few years) tells me that the last thing we need from a business productivity and communication point of view is to fragment the installed base of desktop office tools in way that introduces compatability issues. The key issue here is file formats and how they are handled, rather than the capability of the tools themselves (assuming they do the job to the level that is required).

On that note, we are currently having fun at Freeform Dynamics with MS Office 2007 Open XML files, which are causing some confusion when we inadvertently send one outside of the company. I would imagine anyone adopting ODF would run into the same kind of issues. The difference between the two, of course, is that the evidence suggests that MS Office 2007 will reach critical mass in the not too distant future, pulling Open XML adoption with it, whereas the drivers for ODF adoption are much less clear.

Meanwhile, if you have an interest in alternatives to MS Office, whether or anything else, common sense says you need to check out whether the most common file formats used by the majority are well handled. At the moment, this means Microsoft Office binary formats (*.doc, *.ppt, etc), but will increasingly mean Open XML too.

Right now, ODF looks like a bit of a red herring in the mainstream, expecially if you consider Open XML being embraced as a standard, but there are some big advocates looking to promote it (such as IBM) so there is a chance that this may may change and it is something we are keeping an eye on.

The bottom line, though, is that most IT departments at the moment probably have more pressing priorities than disrupting the MS desktop status quo, which is unlikely to go down well with users anyway.

Despite the level of apathy we are picking up, I am going to keep nosing around this whole area, as there are some segments of the market that struggle to justify the licensing fees associated with Microsoft Office tools, e.g. smaller businesses with relatively simple requirements, and my feeling is that there may well be some niches for alternative solutions opening up as time goes on.