Step off the Upgrade Treadmill.

Increasingly, the questions “Just how much money are we spending on desktop computing software?” and “Could this cost center be better managed?” are being asked. It seems there’s a new upgrade every year or so, at great expense, for operating system and applications both. Why is this necessary? Where is the benefit?

For some reason, the PC culture has developed the attitude that if you’re not running the latest version of everything, you’re doing something wrong or are too cash poor to be able to afford the latest. No matter that what is currently deployed may be doing the job required of it just fine. No consideration that maybe your workers really are more productive without any helpful suggestions from “Clippy”.

But most feel you just must upgrade, or you’ll no longer be compatible with everyone else. It’s called the upgrade treadmill. A new version of a software package is released which has several bug fixes, a few interesting new features, and, oh, by the way, old versions aren’t going to be able to read the new version’s files. Thus, through network effects, you’re forced to upgrade in order to read others’ files.

It’s ludicrous. And it’s about to change, this time in the office suite arena.

StarOffice is a very capable set of programs, including a word processor (Writer), spreadsheet (Calc), presentation application (Impress), a vector drawing tool (Draw), a database management tool and a PIM scheduler, not to mention e-mail, news group and web client functions. Scripting (automating) is done using Java or JavaScript. StarOffice is available for Windows, Linux and Solaris, and is able to read and write complex Microsoft Word and Excel documents.

Last year, Sun Microsystems purchased StarOffice, and made it available for free download to anyone; commercial use is OK. On October 13th, the source code to the entire package will be released under an Open Source License (actually, two; the LGPL and the SISSL). Full details are at (URL: www.openoffice.com ).

What does this mean? Well, anyone who wants a full featured office suite can go to the Open Office site, follow the links, and download one for free. It’s a big download, but it won’t expire, and it can read and write files compatible with people using the latest versions of many products. Sun has just taken $850 out Microsoft’s pocket, and given it back to the consumer.

The Open Source side of things means development on StarOffice will quickly accelerate, likely to match that of other Open efforts like Linux, Samba and Apache. The Gnome Foundation, formed last month, (URL: www.gnome.org ), is going to take the StarOffice code and integrate it with the Gnome Desktop, making it more modular and adding CORBA interfaces. Sun are also providing 50 engineers to contribute to the effort full time.

To most consumers, this move by Sun is a potentially huge win. But not to all: it will be interesting to see what Corel does with its own WordPerfect product in light of this development. At the very least, Corel will want to contribute file filters, as StarOffice does not currently read WordPerfect files. Corel may decide to Open Source WordPerfect as well, but only time will tell if they have that much foresight and concern for their users.

In the longer term, there’s a shift towards storing data in XML format files. Users must be aware however that XML is not a data interchange panacea, and vendors can continue to refuse to document the formats fully. XML is just a framework for schema, and can be as abused and made as incompatible as binary formats.

For StarOffice users, because of responsive development, new filters will appear quickly as needed to read newly incompatible formats from other venders. For other product users, start asking the vender why the incompatibility exists? What benefit does it provide YOU as the consumer, over they, the vender. Just who’s paying whom?

Or maybe, just maybe, step off the treadmill. It’s free!

Published in the Victoria Business Examiner.

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