Licensing fees vs open source software

I work (if you can call it that…) for an organisation that uses a suite of Microsoft applications. In addition to Windows XP it runs MS Office. For the ability to do this, a licensing fee, probably quite sizeable (I don’t know though) is paid to Microsoft.

Now, it was pointed out to me that an open source alternative, “Open Office” is compatible with MS Office, and has most all of the same functionality. There would have to be some retraining, however, to ensure that everyone could use it correctly.

It was put to me that my organisation could save quite substantial sums (even after the cost of retraining for its use) from changing to this alternative, and that there would be very few costs to the change.

I searched for reasons why this person was wrong:

  • We work collaboratively with a lot of other organisations, and need to be using the same software. But apparently they are completely compatible.
  • The support that microsoft offers means it is much safer to use MS office. I can’t recall the response, but apparently this isn’t a big deal.
  • People just won’t retrain and will insist on using MS Office because it is what we know. My friend scoffed with contempt.

Why do we all pay so much to use Microsoft intellectual property? I have my suspicions why, but would like to hear from others.

12 replies
  1. Lundegaard
    Lundegaard says:

    I think – paying for something gives you a sort of “peace of mind” that you’re buying something quality. I take the example of my dad, who many many years ago was the first person in his field to use computers (in NZ). He was about to buy the latest version of Office and tried to convince him towards OpenOffice but he couldn’t understand why it was free, he couldn’t see any rational reason why people would spend all this time programming something for no financial reward – so, fundamentally, he didn’t trust it. He bought Office.

    The retraining costs will be very minimal in my opinion. OpenOffice is nearly identical to Office (apart from the latest version). I think the support thing could be a bigger deal than what your friend suggests but that depends on how much you depend on it.

    An even bigger change you could make is to changeover to Linux. Totally leave Microsoft behind… 🙂

  2. Chris S
    Chris S says:

    Here’s my take on why corporates prefer to pay through the nose for licensed software rather than “risk it” with open source.

    Software like Microsoft Office is interpreted by (mostly non-technical) people as a standard. Use of any other software that may not have the exact same feature set will cause complaining from people who’s job it is to work with the software.

    Back in the olden days there was a saying: “Nobody ever got fired for buying IBM”. Today, the saying is the same but with Microsoft. For instance, if you install Open Office on all your office computers and someones file gets corrupted, the new, unknown software will be blamed. If Microsoft Excel (our even worse, Outlook) corrupts a file – well, it’s just one of those things, isn’t it. You should have saved regularly!

    See what I mean?

    Also, there’s a constant stream of Fear, Uncertainty and Doubt coming from Microsoft about Open Source, when other big players (IBM, Sun, EMC) move to embrace it.,_uncertainty_and_doubt

    Open source is scary to those who don’t understand it. Hundreds of people changing the code that your business relies on. Corporates like “one throat to choke” when something goes wrong, although I think the last business that tried to choke Microsoft’s throat is represented by a grease spot on the carpet somewhere.

    And I believe that most people use at home what they know from work.

  3. Chris S
    Chris S says:

    And by the way, has anyone ever tried to get official support for a Microsoft product? I have before and now it’s my absolute last resort.

    When you’re reduced to googling problems and posting on forums, you might as well be using Open Source – at least the people are friendly.

  4. agnitio
    agnitio says:

    what are your suspicions out of curiosity dant03?

    The list of organisations that are adopting OpenOffice (or one of it’s derivatives) is growing

    While OpenOffice is compatible, it’s not perfect. Last time I checked “commenting” and “track changes” don’t work anywhere near as well in OO as they do in word.

    An even bigger change you could make is to changeover to Linux. Totally leave Microsoft behind… 🙂

    If I could play all of my computer games on Linux without issues that transition would’ve happened for me a long time ago!

  5. Blissex
    Blissex says:

    «We work collaboratively with a lot of other organisations, and need to be using the same software. But apparently they are completely compatible.»

    Unfortunately the latter point is not really true — is fairly compatible, but not fully, and in particular it is fairly compatible with 5-10 year old version of MS-Office.

    Microsoft are very good at breaking compatibility with older versions of their products to force people to upgrade, never mind undermining compatibility with competing products.

  6. Chris S
    Chris S says:

    Last thing, the latest versions of MS Office are now using a standardised XML-based document format.

    Just to make things confusing:
    – “MS Office XML Formats”: deprecated, propriety xml-based format for MS office
    – “ XML”: deprecated, open xml-based format
    – “OpenDocument”:’s current format
    – “Office Open XML”: MS office’s new native format, however it’s standardised and the standard is maintained by the ECMA. This means it’s royalty-free and is free to implement complete and total support for it.

  7. moz
    moz says:

    > Office Open XML”: MS office’s new native format,
    > however it’s standardised

    Unfortunately the standard is largely gibberish but since people are used to reverse engineering MS formats and XML makes that easier it’s not too much of a problem. There was quite a shit-fight about that standard and basically everyone except M$ gave up and walked away.

    That said, I have a copy of Office97 lying around somewhere but OpenOffice is on all of our computers. It works.

  8. rainman
    rainman says:

    “Why do we all pay so much to use Microsoft intellectual property?”

    Because we are not rational. We just like to think we are.

  9. Grant
    Grant says:

    I agree with Chris S that no one ever got fired for buying Microsoft and the larger the company the slower they are to respond.

    When my daughter went to Otago Uni we sent her off with the latest copy of Open Office loaded on her laptop, a month later she asked for MS because economics spreadsheets and documents wouldn’t open reliably in Open Office. So the University, which pays a very low licence fee, forces students (or parents) to buy a branded system designed to keep competitors out. The student version of Office is relatively cheap at $150 for 3 licences but when she leaves she will expect to use the same system – which costs a lot more for businesses.

    Apple have been the master of this tactic – just try and get a Mac user to admit that MS or Linux can do the same job.

  10. agnitio
    agnitio says:

    It’s interesting how people get trapped in brands.

    Off-topic, but I know alot of people who think vodafone is the greatest cell phone company on the planet but they can enver tell me why they hate Telecom. I was quietly enjoying the fact that while on holiday in the coromandal I was the only person in my group of friends that had cell phone reception:)

    I work for a multinational and thus am stuck with office for the time being. During my post grad I became a full linux convert (thanks to Ruaparaha!) but was quite dissapointed when I found out I ahd to use windows and office at work.

    As another aside, Ruaparaha and I have blogged on open source stuff before

  11. Chris
    Chris says:

    You say,

    The support that microsoft offers means it is much safer to use MS office.

    I’ve worked with companies who used both OpenOffice and MS Office, and they have experienced much more support from the OpenOffice community than they got from buying MS software.

    Unless you separately pay for commercial support with MS Office, the “support” is very limited, and basically covers little more than “it doesn’t work”, rather than the more common support needs along the lines of “I don’t know how to make it do /x/”

    You can pay companies for commercial support with either product if you need it.

    OpenOffice forums are an excellent place to get support from the community of users, too. I’ve had good personal experience of support there.

    I switched to OpenOffice some years back, and can recall a single instance about two years ago when I needed to borrow a friends Office (Mac, Off ’97) to open a supplied file. (I had already tried later PC versions of Office on the same spreadsheet and they didn’t open it, so this file was apparently an oddball.)

  12. agnitio
    agnitio says:

    I definitely agree with Chris about support, next time you get an error message in windows or office google it and see how much support you get.

    Any time I’ve had an issue with Linux (I run ubuntu because I’m lazy), I’ve usually found the solution to my problem in a couple of minutes. The community support is fantastic.

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