Thursday, September 14, 2006 Interview: First Choice for Some Schools Now?

My conversation with Solveig Haugland, Ben Horst, & Randy Orwin on the popular Open Source program OpenOffice. This was a particularly interesting interview because Solveig has actually done teacher training for Bainbridge Island School District, where Randy is the Director of Technology, and they both had insight into the transition from a paid office program to OpenOffice.

According to Randy, the move to OpenOffice will save the district "hundreds of thousands of dollars," but he also seemed to indicate that version 2.0 of OpenOffice might actually makes it their first choice regardless of cost because of the features--particularly the ability to natively export to PDF format, the ability of OpenOffice to more easily read and repair documents than the commercial alternatives, and the ability to standardize on document formats because the students can use the OpenOffice for free at home as well.

It would be interesting to find out how many schools or districts are going through this same process of formally evaluating their office productivity software. As was pointed out this summer by two professors at Harvard (see "Microsoft vs. Open Source: Who Will Win?"), as soon as OpenOffice becomes a real threat to sales of commercial software, the commercial vendor will lower the price of that software to keep their "first-mover" advantage and visibility in the marketplace. That seems to me really likely to happen (in fact, Ben argues in the interview that it already has). And while that scenario might be disappointing to those who have worked so hard to create a viable Open Source alternative to the commercial programs, it would still have led to some really positive outcomes: first, choice; second, one of those choices being "free" (in both senses of that word); and third, a significant reduction in the amount of money schools have to spend for basic technology. "Hundreds of thousands of dollars" must surely make a big difference to a school district, their faculty, the students, and their parents. (I've already said how much I hate the additional fundraising that our schools do--especially when they take time to train the students to do it).

We also talked about the trends that have made the adoption of OpenOffice by schools much more likely:

  • OpenOffice has just gotten a lot better. Everyone agreed on this.
  • Office programs are really not adding features now that are significant for the bulk of use by most users. And, in fact, the adding of a lot of new features can actually work against basic productivity programs because they run the risk of being overly complicated.
  • Students are coming to school now from a computing world in which they are used to a large variety of choice. There are multiple IM, email, music, and other programs, and they have learned to navigate quickly between them to accomplish what they want. They aren't as bound by past experience as the previous generation, and are very adept at exploring and figuring things out. The "first-mover" advantage mentioned above won't mean as much to them.
  • Students are also using a lot of different programs to accomplish tasks that once were the sole domain of office productivity: most of their writing surely does not take place in a word processor (think online journals, blogs, texting, and social networking programs), and when they are "word processing" they have access to several web-based programs that are becoming more and more robust.
  • Randy and Solveig both seemed to indicate that OpenOffice, when shown to students and teachers, is often mistaken for the commercial alternative.

All in all, a pretty exciting time for OpenOffice, and for user choice, I think.

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