My buddy Matt has an interesting post on the problems with OpenOffice. I'm sad that Matt misses what I feel is the most important contribution of Open Office.

I would argue that Open Office along with Firefox are two of the most important and successful Open Source applications for the mass of humanity (I'm not discounting Linux (which is probably orders of magnitude more important) or GCC(which is important to developers)). I'm grateful to have Open Office and I use it almost everyday. Is it the epitome of good software? No, but it does its job.

Why is Open Office successful? Because it is free in the libre sense? I don't think this is the case. As Matt and other's have pointed out 90 of 100 developers who are working on OO are paid by companies to do so. You might say cool 90 people. I say, why does it take 90 people? (I had the same feeling at the recent conference in the groupware session where I heard that there are around 20 developers working on Evolution, but 1 working on Kontact! And from the demos given, I'm thinking about moving to Kontact).

Is it successful because it is free in the gratis sense? Probably to a degree. Lots of companies would like to lower their licensing costs. Using Open Office is one way to do that.

Is it successful because it is cross platform? Again, probably to a degree. This is important but it is not the main factor.

I claim the main factor for its success is "compatibility". Because we have been entrenched with a monopoly on productivity software, people need to be compatible with that. Granted, it's not 100% compatible, but for 90% of people it does the job. If it wasn't compatible to some degree, few would use it. If it was more compatible with the incumbent format, more people would use it.

Which brings me to my main point. What is the most beneficial thing OO has done? Opening up millions of lines of source code that few people can understand? Nope. Giving away software for free? Nope. What is it then? The most important thing OO has done has nothing to do with the fact that it is open source software. In fact, this thing happened after OO already had compatibility with MS Office. The most important thing is a new standard now supported in OpenOffice2. The ODF standard. This standard is open to the world and anyone can implement it.

Matt complains about Linux World forcing him to use Open Office, but what it appears to me is that they are saying use a standard compliant format. Is Massachusetts betting on Open Office because it is open source? I think they are more interested in a standard. (An quick aside, I was talking with a friend who works for a company that makes movies during lunchtime ultimate pickup today. I asked him if they use homegrown or proprietary software. His response is enlightening. "Mostly homegrown, you don't know if these small companies selling software will be around in 5 years." But if they are supporting a standard, you don't have to worry about being able to access your data in 5 years).

What would happen if you browser didn't render HTML, it only rendered a proprietary version of a markup language that was undocumented? Would people complain then? In fact, where would the internet be without standards?

Looking to the future.... So is Open Office the answer? For most people I think it does the job. Is it the best solution? Probably not. But now that the standard is out there and others are supporting it, expect meaner leaner office environments. My bet is that KOffice will be the Firefox of the office suites (when it uses QT4 which will allow free versions for windows). It will be lightweight fast, and people will be able to extend the code. (How many people are working on KWord right now? 3 or 4?) And it will work on Macs as well, without requiring you to fuss with X.