Monday, May 30, 2005

MS Office versus OpenOffice for outreach to K-12

A year or two ago my boss was on a kick to put some pressure on Microsoft in terms of how they were licensing their Office Suite to Higher Ed. At the time, Sun Microsystems was pushing their Star Office as a viable alternative to the Microsoft version. We had more than one discussion at our Cabinet about how we might implement on campus. For my part, I went so far as to buy myself a very inexpensive Linspire (formerly Lindows, a linux OS that has a user interface linke Windows) computer and try out that OS. My argument was that anybody who was working on a Windows box would use Microsoft Office products. But if somebody was operating in a Linux environment, then using open alternatives would seem reasonable.

The initiative failed miserably. The story I was told is that Sun didn't follow through. But the demographics didn't make sense, in my opinion, so it was doomed from the start. My guess is that the people on campus most likely to try non-Microsoft offerings are Mac users. But Star Office doesn't have a Mac version. We should have tried with Open Office instead. (Sun has played a background role in Open Office but Star Office and Open Office are not the same.) If we did that, however, we would be on our own. Sun wouldn't have been involved.

I did learn some things from this experiment. Failures do have their lessons. I spoke to quite a few people in CITES about providing lab computers cheaply. Most of them (and these folks had real knowledge about support) were dead against things like Sun Ray terminals, which like Citrix, run desktop software off a server. They said this stuff is too slow or too unreliable. Also, they would really like to buy their computers from a known vendor - Dell has been the standard for quite a while in the CITES computing labs. The feeling was that the Linspire computers which one can buy at Walmart actually have a higher total cost of ownership or their performance is much lower.

I would concur with the latter verdict. These boxes used chips from AMD rather than from Intel and the box I got was from a company I had never heard of. I don't know what Microsoft gets from Dell or other vendors for the Windows software, but just checking the Dell site this morning there is a starter desktop system that one can get for $300 (with rebate). This is a full system that comes with XP home edition. From the Linspire site, I found this very cheapie box but note that it doesn't come with a mouse, keyboard, monitor, or speakers. If you compare the two processors, the Dell box is 2.4 GHZ with a Celeron processor. The cheapie box is 1.5 GHZ with an AMD processor. I've got nothing against cheapie, but this is an apples and oranges comparison.

So how does any of this apply to K-12 and High Ed outreach there? The answer is simple. Reliability is worth a lot. The approach that works must have computers that are reliable and that can be maintained by whatever staff the schools have. At present it is my belief that Apple still has the lion's share of the market in the schools and that is because of its historic give away programs. If that is right, that market share itself makes Mac the low cost product because that is easiest for the schools to support. In recent years when Apple was in trouble, some of the schools may have switched to PC in which case they probably have Dells or Gateways. Those are the environments that are there and those are what we should design to now, if we're doing outreach.

The society as a whole must embrace open software first, before it makes sense to use that approach in the schools. Will that happen? I have no idea. There is such an installed base for the Microsoft stuff, I have my doubts. But most kids don't learn Excel before coming to college. (They do learn PowerPoint and Word.) If somebody in the open source universe cleverly de-bundled the spreadsheet and database pieces, they might make some more penetration. Here's betting that is not likely to happen.


Cameron said...

Hey, I read this blog, now I am a huge fan of open source. I guess my only beef with what you said is when you are comparing your Intel to your AMD box is that that 1.5 Ghz AMD is going to run most benchmark programs at just the same speed if not higher than a 2.4 Ghz P4. AMD is more efficient. Other than that, I like how you write and am very interested into going into the IT industry when I am done with school.

Lanny Arvan said...

I may have to move to some open source for comments on the blog. You posted your comment on the 26th and I only got it on the 30th. That is too long a lag.

Good luck with your IT career. There's a lot of interesting things going on now so it is an exciting place to work.

Anonymous said...

OpenOffice 2.0 is now available, so I think it's time to consider your options again!

Last time, it seems that switching hardware became a distraction that interfered with the issue at hand--"Should you roll out open source software on desktops in your environment?"

College is the perfect place for students to learn and use new software. They should be familiar with multiple options in any category of software they use (when a student says, "I don't want to learn new software," it makes me wonder why they're even in school, where one's purpose should be to learn everything one encounters.)

Open source options continue to grow in market and mindshare. OpenOffice 2.0 is slowly catching on with students, but formal support is needed. I've seen administrations resist its growth for no coherent reason, which is a true shame. If students can save money, the school should support and help them to do so. Textbooks and tuition prices keep rising, but software costs don't have to!

Lanny Arvan said...

I think you'll find the research showing that most of the new software students learn is driven by some class requirement for the software. So to get to the students you have to get to the instructors first.

There is lock in to MS Office because the support providers know it and they are stretched thin now so don't want additional burdens that they may deem unnecessary.

So, yes, it would be good to see open alternatives, but no it isn't just administrative inertia.