RealTime IT News

OpenOffice Finds Sweet Spot with Governments

By Sean Michael Kerner

Following a trend by foreign administrations, the Israeli government this week suspended its acquisitions of new computer software from Microsoft .

Price issues and the U.S. company's refusal to sell individual programs from its standard software package are cited as the main reason behind the switch, according Associated Press reports. Instead, Israeli news outlet Arutz Sheva said Wednesday that the Israeli Ministry of Finance will begin distributing Openoffice.org to its users beginning this week. The Israeli government plans to begin distributing Openoffice.org software on CD-ROM to public access points across the country in 2004. The Hebrew version of Openoffice.org was translated by Sun Microsystems and IBM with the support and assistance of the Israeli Finance Ministry.

The Israel government did not respond to requests for comment.

"Israel is interesting because it has taken a stand on behalf of open source and open standards and said that this is the way that they want to go and Openoffice.org has been able to satisfy their needs," Louis Suarez-Potts, community manager for OpenOffice.org told internetnews.com.

The Open Office software suite (properly referred to as Openoffice.org or OOo) is one of the better-known applications of the open source movement. It provides an alternative to Microsoft's ubiquitous Office application with similar word processing, spreadsheet and presentation software. Development of OpenOffice.org is partially backed by Sun Microsystems. OpenOffice.org will run on both *nix and Window environments and is duel licensed under the LGPL (GNU Lesser General Public License) and SISSL (Sun Industry Standards Source License).

According to Suarez-Potts, Openoffice.org's license, which allows for open contributions, is one of the reasons that make the Israeli decision very promising.

"Even people that are not using it in the Hebrew form will benefit from whatever improvements or enhancement they make," he said.

Governments around the world appear to be taking an interest in Openoffice.org and open source software in general. The city of Austin, Texas recently adopted openoffice.org software and governments in Germany, France, Brazil and China to name of few have stated interest in going the open source route as well. In the U.K Scottish Public Libraries have made Openoffice.org software available for lending to the public.

"We have been working towards having as many governments both regional and federal adopt open source and open office in particular because we are the flagship of any desktop open source system. Suarez-Potts said. "We're now in some ways the most definite obvious example that a person is going to encounter of open source software."

The trend is even extending into more U.S. agencies, which have been some of Microsoft's best customers.

"A couple of departments in Massachusetts state agencies have said they want to go open source too," Yankee Group analyst Laura Didio told internetnews.com. "With government organizations they have to tender within the confines of approved vendor lists for RFP's and they usually have to go with the lowest price so its not surprising that if you're just talking price that open source is going to have a great deal of appeal."

Didio is quick to point out however that few organizations appear to look at the true total cost of ownership of open source solutions, specifically as it relates to indemnification (from the SCO Group lawsuit principally). She asserts that many governments need to have some sort of indemnification and that it's a large issue that needs to be recognized.

According to Didio, the price differential of open source solutions such as Openoffice.org is not the only reason why governments are making noise about open source. She believes that it's also about leverage and competition.

"I think that the competition that open source has brought to the table has been good because it has forced Microsoft to respond and give its customers better terms and conditions and that's healthy, Didio said. "It gives customers more leverage."

In the case of governments, open standards may potentially be viewed as a necessary form of democratic pluralism themselves.

"Should governments be using a format that is unique to a particular vendor to talk to its citizens? "Noted Linux Guru and author of the Open Source Definition Bruce Perens asks. "The government should not be saying you can only drive up to a government office in a particular brand of car. In the same sense the government should not be saying you can only talk to your government if you have Microsoft Windows software on your computer."

According to Openoffice.org's Suarez-Potts, it's not just a case of kicking Microsoft in the shins, it's more a question of making file formats that are freely available, more available to a country's citizens.

"We see that any number of governments in this coming year and probably the next two years are going to start using openoffice.org and open systems because we are better for the government itself and its better for the citizens of that country," he said.