OpenOffice.org under Oracle: Still viable?

The LibreOffice fork sparked by Oracle profiteering leaves IT shops wondering about the viability of their favorite Office alternative

Many IT shops, looking to cut software expenses, have considered ditching Microsoft Office and bringing in a free or almost-free alternative. After all, the vast majority of Office users never touch 90 percent of the features -- don't need 'em, don't want 'em, don't understand 'em, and don't want to learn. So why pay through the nose for Office?

Until very recently, the clear alternative to Office was OpenOffice.org, an open source project started by Sun Microsystems that covers all the capabilities most users actually need. While not 100 percent compatible, OpenOffice almost always renders typical Microsoft Office-generated documents correctly. It's a reasonable solution for the majority of Office users -- ones who don't need fancy Excel charts or complex Word documents.

[ Oracle has sought to dispel worry in the OpenOffice community about its commitment to the open source suite. | Keep up on key business application news with the Technology: Applications newsletter. ]

But that was before Oracle got hold of Sun and OpenOffice.org. Now things are looking a little shaky.

Recent events have many IT shops wondering whether OpenOffice still offers a dependable alternative to the high-priced spread. More than a few corporate types who bet their reputations on moving to OpenOffice are watching the situation turn from bad to worse. To understand what's happening, it helps to look at the history.

Back in 1999, Sun Microsystems bought a proprietary Office product called StarOffice from a German company. In 2000, Sun turned StarOffice into an open source project, renaming it OpenOffice.org (trademark restrictions prevented Sun from simply calling it OpenOffice). Developers flocked to the project, savoring the idea of creating an open source alternative to Microsoft's cash cow. The suite gradually improved its compatibility with Microsoft Office and expanded its feature set to the point that version 3.0, released in 2008, became a viable alternative to Microsoft Office.

In the early days, working with OpenOffice's ODF file format from Office was problematic, but over the years it's gotten much easier. Sun released a free tool called the Sun ODF Plugin for Microsoft Office, which did a credible job of allowing Microsoft Office users to open ODF files in Office 2003 and 2007 SP 1. Microsoft added usually reliable native support for opening and saving ODF files from inside Office 2007 SP 2 and 2010.

Then Oracle bought Sun in January, and things began to change, includiing one big one that many OpenOffice users noticed: The old Sun ODF Plugin disappeared. In its place, Oracle released the Oracle ODF Plug-In for Microsoft Office and slapped a $90 price tag on it, with a minimum order quantity of 100 units -- not what one would expect for an open source product designed to interoperate with Office.

Some of the people associated with OpenOffice.org -- many of them Sun, then Oracle, employees -- became skittish and in September formed an independent group called The Document Foundation. TDF claimed it didn't intend to fork the OpenOffice.org code, but nonetheless it was going to call its version of OpenOffice "LibreOffice."

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