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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  1. Anonymous3:39 AM

    I enjoyed listening to your interviews. The ones about LTSP, were excellent despite the poor sound quality in some.

    The latest interview, that with Solveig Haugland, Ben Horst, and Randy Orwin, was interesting, too. However, in regards to the pricing not only are many universities giving away MS Office or selling it for a token sum, the schools themselves are getting heavy discounts, some as much as 90%.

    However, there is a catch and I was surprised that none of the four in the podcast pointed it out. The catch is getting locked into the file formats. The file formats have been a constant sore point for interoperability. That's not only between MSO and its competitors but also different versions of MSO. So the initial price of MSO may appear low, but there is a catch and MS does plan to recover the money.

    "Someday they will [pay], though. As long as they are going to steal it, we want them to steal ours. They'll get sort of addicted, and then we'll somehow figure out how to collect sometime in the next decade."

  2. Yes. Sorry about the sound quality. We think we're doing better now! :)

    I'm not sure that the formats in the office productivity programs lock anybody in now., for example, seems to open and save in the .doc, .xls, and .ppt formats quite well. I do think that we continue to use that which we are most familiar and comfortable with, and so MS is smart to discount to schools and students. They are not the only company to do so.

    While I've read that same quote before, I do think we need to be careful not to be drawn into demonizing commercial software companies (not that there aren't times when they deserve it). For me, it can sometimes detract from the other positive messages of the Open Source movement.

  3. Anonymous8:23 AM

    The problem with getting Open Source software in to school districts is that it is perceived as a risk. Most people at work use Microsoft Office so that is what parents and board members will now and 'trust'. If a IT Director runs with a plan to migrate to Open Office they run the risk when problems occur that they will be blamed. Most, IMHO, prefer to avoid that risk.

  4. Anonymous:

    I agee on the risk issue. What's interesting about that is the degree to which it encapsulates how technology decisions are made in the school environment--which might be categorized as "passive" or "reactive." Nobody who used Word Perfect when it was the leading word processing program should have any difficulty seeing that mainstay programs are less and less static--and anyone paying attention right now might say that teaching MS Word is actually teaching old technology, since Google Docs is likely to be more pervasively used in five years. So while I am sympathetic to how the school decision-making systems reward those who keep their necks less exposed, I also think the result of that (in most cases) is a lack of vision and a more proactive integration of technology into education.


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