The Price of Free

A couple weeks ago, 3.0 was released, and millions of consumers downloaded it, including me. is a Sun-sponsored project that provides a suite of desktop “office” applications, such as word processing, spreadsheets, presentations, graphics and a database, and is an open source, free competitor to the likes of Microsoft Office. This is the first time OpenOffice has run natively on Apple’s OSX.

While we officially run Microsoft Office 2007 and Vista here at Freeform, many of us use Macs, and occasionally need to open up documents while running OSX. At first glance, 3.0 was a viable solution for this, and a major improvement, from a UI perspective, to previous version 2.4, and also an improvement over NeoOffice, another desktop open source competitor (for the purpose of this investigation, we did not investigate Google Documents, which operates in the cloud and is not how we currently manage documents).

On the surface, the 3.0 applications achieved a decent user interface, mimicking Microsoft Office older toolbars and drop down menus. However, I find switching back and forth between OpenOffice and current Office applications quite challenging compared to simply switching back and forth between operating systems, due to the countless nuances between a given application on one office suite versus the other.

Please see comparative screen shots of a new text document in 3 and Microsoft Office 2007 Word below.

One of our major issues with using multiple office-based applications across the organization and with clients is interoperability. While promising nearly 100% interoperability with major Office applications, all open source programs we have tried have failed to provide interoperability in enough cases, especially with PowerPoint. I tried a few experiments with 3.0, and at first, I was hopeful. Relatively simple word and spreadsheet documents created in OpenOffice in OSX opened perfectly in their counterpart programs in Microsoft Office in Vista. Editing these documents in Office and sending them back roundtrip into OpenOffice also worked perfectly, to my surprise. This is where the good news ended.

I then tried opening two modestly complex documents created in Office in OpenOffice, and had entirely unacceptable results. When I opened a PowerPoint document in OpenOffice, all the graphics and template colors were perfect, a surprise. However, various viewing modes didn’t work, such as handout, which would not render on the screen, let alone print. A Microsoft Word document created with a straightforward outline numbering system, when opened in OpenOffice, randomly renumbered and changed the format of most headings, rendering the document illegible.

Given that Microsoft Office Home and Student edition lists at $149.95, Microsoft Office Standard at $399.95, and Microsoft Office Professional at $499.95 (substantially lower prices available online), it is hard to justify enterprise reliance on a compatibility-challenged, albeit free, program. This is especially true in any organization in which office applications are mission critical for conducting business, and even more true for any business that ever shares anything more than very simple files outside the organization in an editable form.

However, OpenOffice can suit individuals and groups where interoperability is less of an issue, or where cost is a major factor, such as in a non-profit or bootstrapped startup. Solo entrepreneurs, students, home users and others may also find OpenOffice to be quite suitable. OpenOffice users do get an amazing amount of functionality, with more power in the programs than available at a premium just a couple years ago, and the community should be applauded. It’s intriguing to think, too, with the popularity of OpenOffice, and the donations coming in, what may be next.

While OpenOffice is impressive for the cost, the cost of using it in most situations is too high for me at present, as I suspect it will be for most mainstream businesses, although I will keep it running and updated so I can open documents when running OSX. In the meantime, I think it is safe to say commercial software for the enterprise desktop will remain the default option for the foreseeable future.

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