Migration to Document Freedom Isn't As Easy As It Seems

by Ostatic Staff - Mar. 29, 2013

In case you missed it, March 27 was Document Freedom Day, and The Document Foundation released a whitepaper in honor of the day. The whitepaper provides a 10-step migration plan on how to standardize on Open Document Format (ODF). In the report, there is detailed discussion of LibreOffice and the benefits of its support for ODF. There is just one problem with this otherwise noble effort: Document compatibility isn't good enough between free and open office suites and proprietary office application suites.

The 10-step plan for migrating to Libre Office includes very brusque and breezy discussion of the value of proprietary components that real offices use and share -- components that make it nearly impossible in some cases to consider moving to a suite like LibreOffice. Consider this quote from the 10-step plan: "...before migrating any existing Visual Basic macros, it is better to determine if the macros are still needed, in order to discard those that are no longer useful and re-engineer the remaining ones."

Umm, this particular quote drills right down to why many offices don't adopt free application suites, but breezes right past the real issues. Have you ever tried to import and use a really complex spreadsheet created in Excel--complete with macros, graphics, multiple fonts and more into the Calc or other free and open spreadsheets? The compatibility is just not there, and offices care about compatibility. IT staff can't just autocratically mandate that tech users are to tolerate incompatibility.

Simon Phipps has an interesting InfoWorld column about two municipal migrations to OpenOffice, one of which went well and one of which really didn't.  He writes:

"It must have seemed a sure thing. With costs for Microsoft Office around $75 per seat per year for public administration, the city of Freiburg in Germany embarked on a migration to OpenOffice.org, figuring it'd save a bundle in license fees. With 2,000 users, the move would amass $150,000 annually. So the city tried."

"Five years and at least $600,000 on, with unhappy staff complaining of interoperability problems with Microsoft Office documents, city administrators called in a consultant from a Microsoft partner to support the city council in fixing the problem. The solution proposed: a complete reversal of course, switching back to Microsoft Office for a sum of at least $500,000, with a $360-per-seat cost for licensing Microsoft Office and no firm estimates for undoing the earlier migration."

This is the real reason why free suites aren't pervasive. Don't get me wrong. I would prefer them to be pervasive. But the communities behind free applications can't just ignore the continuing compatibility problems. There have to be better solutions.