OpenOffice.org is a great package. It provides powerful capabilities in a
number of areas - document editing, spreadsheets, presentations, etc. - and
makes it possible for Linux users to interoperate with the large part of
the world which is dependent on proprietary office applications. Much of
the time, OpenOffice is the
tool needed to enable Linux to replace a
proprietary desktop system. It would be a hard tool to live without.
That said, there is some truth in a
comment recently posted by Jeff Waugh:
OpenOffice.org is not aggressively competitive with Microsoft
Office - it's playing to match the feature matrix instead of
leapfrogging and defining new ground to fight on. That is not a
winning strategy, particularly when the stakes involve the future
of Software Freedom in the hands of users around the world.
This statement is, perhaps, not entirely true; OpenOffice has, for example,
been a big part of the push toward the Open Document Format. The open
format push has most certainly shifted the battle, to the point that even
Microsoft has had to respond. Beyond that, however, it is hard to point to
a long list of new things which OpenOffice has brought to the office
productivity arena. It is mostly a good copy of that other office
Critics of free software are fond of claims that the community is
restricted to imitating developments done in the proprietary world. Free
software, it is said, is not where innovation is done. To a great extent,
OpenOffice could be said to validate that claim. It is not clear that this
situation can change; OpenOffice is a large and intimidating code base
which can be hard to contribute to, and the project's mission would seem to
argue against the creation of surprising new features.
The community is not limited to OpenOffice, however. Jeff's posting
points to a weblog entry by Marc
Maurer, wherein he (by way of a large Flash file) demonstrates the
long-anticipated collaborative editing addition to AbiWord. Authors,
connected by the net, can simultaneously work on the same document and see
each others' changes as they happen. Now every document can be written by
committee, a process known to produce superior results.
Seriously, however, there are clear advantages to being able to work in
this mode. Perhaps the tiresome process of sending document files around
as attachments and trying to integrate changes from others could eventually
fade away. And the world has shown, many times, that if people are given
new ways to communicate and work together, they will do surprising things
with that capability. So this addition to AbiWord (hopefully due to show
up in the 2.6 release) is a welcome step forward.
Meanwhile, the KDE project recently held a "GUI and functionality design
competition" for KOffice 2. the results of
this competition have now been posted; they show that a number of smart
people are thinking about where KOffice could go from here. The winning
entry [PDF] from Martin Pfeiffer takes a long look at how people work
with documents. His ideas, if realized, could take much of the tiresome
clicking out of the editing process and make the task of putting together
documents (especially large ones) much more straightforward and fun.
The fact that much effort in the free software community has gone into the
replication of features available elsewhere is not particularly
surprising. If one wants to build a user community for a software package,
one is well advised to provide the capabilities that the target users have
come to expect. In many areas, however, that goal has been met, and the
time has come to move into new capabilities that users do not - yet -
expect to find. By many accounts, office suites are one of those areas.
We have the capabilities that most users need; it will be fun to watch as
developers create features that users do not yet know that they need.
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