Posted by: mikepearsonnz | September 22, 2009

Open Office is so yesterday

A Computerworld article reported that the New Zealand Open Source Society is launching a project to demonstrate the viability of free open source software on public sector desktops.

I have no evangelical interest in operating system or office productivity suite brands, but I think it is interesting to mull over what strategic question the project is going to address.

Is it about productivity?

In the old days (1980s) , I was an IT manager faced with a difficult decision.  My organisation used a mixture of electric typewriters and proprietary Wang word processors.   Personal computers were becoming affordable and it was time to make a strategic decision:

“Should I use MS-Word or Wordperfect?”

Office SuiteIn the 1990s, I  had to buy an office productivity suite, including a word processor, spreadsheet and presentation applications.  The strategic decision became:

“Should I use MS-Office, Lotus Notes or Novell Groupwise?”

The decision had become easier, because my organisation had built on  its existing investment, by developing additional support resources such as templates, policies and training.  I had to consider how I could continue to access the increasing archive of legacy information.   The software providers were starting to release new versions on a regular basis.  It was a large amount of work, just to cope with transitioning between different versions, provided by the same provider.

Swapping to a different software package would increase my transition costs, because I would have to redo all my supporting resources.   I would have to consider how to access my legacy information.

There is no research that I am aware of, that suggests swapping office productivity suites results in significant increased productivity.

Is it about saving money?

In early 2000s, there was mutterings of a new initiative by Sun, called Open Office.  Open source advocates started trying to make the case for open source on the desktop.

“Should I use Open Office to save money?”

If I had been making a new investment (such as in the 1980s), then it was worth considering.  However my legacy resources and information made that difficult.   Swapping to a different provider would increase my transition costs, because I would have to redo all my supporting resources.

In the late 2000s, I felt an increasing resistance to continual upgrades.  There was sufficient functionality in the existing office productivity suite; for many users it was too complicated.  My organisation looked to maximise their investment, by using the software as long as possible.  I wasn’t going to upgrade, there was no money being spent, therefore how could Open Office save money?

So what are the strategic questions that need to be addressed?

There are three related strategic questions I am thinking about.

1. How do I store my information in an open format?

Legacy information in proprietary formats influences my strategic decisions.  An open format would widen my potential options.  I also need to think more broadly about open formats for information, since the future is real-time streaming information, no longer conveniently packaged as pages.

Based on my experience with standards implementation (or failure thereof), I would like a test suite made available by some third party such as the NZ Open Source Society.  This will allow software vendors to test their products and my organisation to do acceptance testing.

I would encourage my peers to adopt ODF as the standard document format.   Standards New Zealand has already done the consultation.  This topic was hotly debated in 2007, when OOXML was proposed as an international standard.  Standards New Zealand disapproved with the decision to ratify OOXML – therefore we should all use ODF.

2. How do I make best use of my information?

Collecting, cleaning and storing information is an expensive investment.  The investment is fulfilled when the right information is put in front of a decision maker, at the right time, in the right way.

Many organisations feel email and websites have created “information overload“.  They are choose to ignore or block other information channels, such as texts, social media and instant messaging.  Arguably their issue is  “organization underload” –  decision makers can’t discern how to use it well in the constrained form it is presented to them.

Strategically how will I adopt multiple new information channels seamlessly into my information system?

Office Suite 2009

3. How do I process my information?

Broadband means that Software as a Service (SaaS) is now a viable option, as office productivity suites move into the cloud.

Cloud  computing can save money.  Information in the cloud is potentially accessible from anywhere on the Internet, offering productivity gains from remote access and increased collaboration.

Strategically, cloud computing has great potential, but I need to understand the risks and opportunities.

We have certainly come a long way from my 1980s ICT environment!!

A final word

And hence the title of this blog – “Open Office is so yesterday”.  A project looking at the viability of free open source software on public sector desktops does not seem strategic to me.  It would have been strategic in the 1990s.

There is an open source office productivity suite for the cloud, called OpenGoo.  But the very nature of the cloud computing paradigm makes the questions of “which operating system” and “which office productivity suite” less relevant.

I should only care that you and I can both collaborate on the same information, each of us using our preferred toolset.



  1. Provocative as always, Mike.

    The cloud is an attractive option, no question. I just don’t think, for the public sector in NZ, it is a realistic one.

    Questions of sovreignty and security aside (and they are non-trivial) there is the issue of how the documents (inc. videos, sound files and whatever else we create) are stored – after all, records management is the cornerstone of any bureaucracy.

    I think some of our work could take place in the cloud, but my view is the majority of it will still need to happen in a controlled environment even if it is only to ensure that the appropriate standards and metadata is used so that it can then be made accessible via APIs etc.

    Call me a sceptical about the cloud…

  2. Hi Jason, are you sceptical about the cloud concept overall or the government use of public cloud?

    The safest way for government organisations to explore the concepts is probably in a government cloud, as Vivek Kundra is doing – I have several articles clipped here:

    A government cloud will not have the economies of scale of global SaaS, but gives some efficiencies, while ensuring new systems are designed so they can be ported to either a government or public cloud.

    In any scenario, open standards for all information formats, current and future, are critical.

  3. I’m sceptical about govt use of the public (ie., private enterprise controlled) cloud.

    And, yes, a govt cloud would be an ideal solution, but for a country of our scale Linux desktops is probably a more realistic solution (certainly in the short to medium term).

  4. […] Open Office is so yesterday « Mike Pearson – view page – cached A Computerworld article reported that the New Zealand Open Source Society is launching a project to demonstrate the viability of free open source software on public sector desktops. — From the page […]

  5. Hi Mike

    You make some reasonable points but misrepresenting what the PSR is about was unnecessary for you cause 🙂

    As you know, the PSR is not about OpenOffice, it is about using technology appropriately. The desktop is simply a label for the “device and system that mediates your interactions with technology”.

    Exploring what software should run on that device and analysing alternatives seems a reasonable thing to do and hardly passee.

    The government should not be seen as a “black box”, where some data goes in, gets transformed and, if we are lucky, comes out the other side. Every transformation process is critical, every storage state is important to the final result.

    One thing FOSS does do is *guarantee* that the processes of transformation and the storage of data is, by absolute definition, open. Propitiatory solutions can only ever be an approximation to that outcome.

  6. Hi Don,

    I only have the media release to go on; I could not find a terms of reference/deliverables for the project. The media release says “The Public Sector Remix project will aim to reduce the cost of desktop computing for the public sector by demonstrating the viability of free open source software.”

    My point was that most organisations have already invested in software – I used office productivity suites as an example.

    Is PRS measuring productivity as part of its scope? We should not be afraid of spending more money if it increases productivity.

    I didn’t use the word passee, but my opinion is there are more strategic things to spend money on than alternatives for the desktop. It’s not just my opinion, the Linux conference has been discussing how unimportant the desktop is:

    Governments should care about the information format, but I’m not convinced about the processes of transformation.

    Most consumers view technology as black box. Why should government be any different?
    Are you saying that Blackberrys, iPhones, Kindles and other such devices should not be used because they are proprietary, and we dont understand the intermediate processes and storage states?

  7. […] service offering, unless there are significant advantages.    I also made this point in “Why Open Office is So Yesterday“.  Agencies will typically consider a new service as part of their “refresh” […]

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