I’m about to do something that will have more than a few people who know me thrashing around and screaming in horror. I’m replacing a free application with one I’m paying money for.
To be precise, I’m replacing what I use of OpenOffice.org 3.2 with Microsoft Office 2010.
Well, it wasn’t like I didn’t try.
When I bought Office 2007, I spent the money on Word and Outlook, and used OpenOffice.org (OO for short) as my spreadsheet application. It worked fine, since I wasn’t doing anything particularly advanced with Excel in the first place.
Then I tried using OO’s Writer as a replacement for Word, and ran into one inadequacy after another.
In its broad outlines, OO is not a bad program. It works decently well for quick-and-dirty word processing, and even some fairly advanced tasks. The devil, as always, is in the details.
Its spellchecker and grammar-checker components were and are terrible; I couldn’t even buy better versions of those components.
The UI was antiquated. Even the newest and most performance-optimized builds seemed to lag. Many Office 2007 (and 2003) document features didn’t render correctly. The more I dug, the longer the list grew.
Now Office 2010 Home and Business has come along, which includes Excel and OneNote and comes at a price which compares favorably to what I paid for just Word and Outlook together. Office 2010 is around $200, if I order from Amazon.com, and possibly even cheaper elsewhere. (I get even more of a price break if I order a key code without physical media.)
It runs very well indeed, and it includes all the little things about Word that I didn’t want to part with — like, for instance, a context-sensitive spelling and grammar checker.
Sure, OO was and is free. But I’m more than willing to pay money for software that I know is useful. A free version of a not-very-useful program is still a not-very-useful program.
Bringing its pricetag down to zero does not change its native behavior. It simply makes it that much easier to find out whether or not you’re going to be happy with it. In an age when you can get a free 15-day trial of everything from MS Office to Photoshop, it’s that much less significant.
As for the philosophical value of open source: The fact you can modify the source means nothing to people who barely have enough time in their day to read their email, let alone learn how to program.
People assumed, wrongly, that when faced with something like OO, Microsoft had to give Office away to compete. No, Microsoft didn’t have to make Office free; they just had to make the cost low enough that the pain of getting on board wasn’t quite so egregious.
You can credit OO for helping bring down Office’s list price if you like, but that doesn’t make OO any more problematic for me to actually use.
It also didn’t change the fact that OO was not supported in a way that enhanced its development. Sun charged for a supported version (StarOffice), but that seemed like the wrong model for a program like that — it would have been more useful, in my eyes, to adopt an open-core strategy. Give away the basics, charge for the pro-level stuff.
A really good spellchecker and grammar-checker are two things I would have gladly paid for, and would have added immense value to the program. That and having those pieces authored and supported in-house would have meant that much more of my money would have gone back into supporting its development in the first place. (If I keep harping on the spelling/grammar functionality, it’s only because they’re the best single example of how OO failed to keep me as a user.)
But they didn’t do any of that. Or if they did, I never heard about it.
The last time I heard anything about Oracle’s future plans for OO/StarOffice, they amounted to: “Oracle plans to continue developing and supporting OpenOffice as open source.”
It’s now been almost a year since those words were spoken, and there’s not much sign of what that amounts to in reality. It could amount to anything from OO being forked by another entity (which would do a better job with it) to OO going closed-source in future iterations. IBM did a nice job with their OO-based Lotus Symphony product; I could see them taking OO in directions Sun/Oracle never did … if they chose to pick up the mantle.
But, again, that’s all in the realm of “maybe to never.” And I have work to do, now.
And meanwhile, the new version of Office is priced about right. $200 for an application I’m going to be using every single day for the next three or four years works out to 13 cents a day. That’s, what — one less latte every month?
My decision to opt for Microsoft Office over OO doesn’t mean I’m leaving open source – not by a longshot. There’s a lot of other free software I use which I’ll still continue to stick with.
For instance, the desktop publishing app Scribus,; the vector-drawing program Inkscape; Chrome and Firefox (both have strengths and weaknesses); the foobar2000 music player; the 7-ZIP archiver; the list does go on.
But for some things, it’s better to pay something upfront and get a program that you know has a good chance of being what you need, instead of struggling with a free app that only gets you three-fifths of the way there and then thumbs its nose at you.
I’m still open to the possibility that a future version of OO will be a great program — but sorry, I’m not waiting around on other people to get their act together.
It’s been said that programs like OO are essentially “a hedge against total domination by Microsoft — enough to keep them honest.” Fine, but in the end, I don’t want a hedge. I want a tool that works.