February 7, 2008

New consulting company gambles on KOffice demand

Author: Bruce Byfield

Although KOffice has its admirers, in many people's minds, it runs a poor second to OpenOffice.org. However, some European developers expect that situation to change, and to encourage that change, they have created KOfficeSource, a company incorporated in Germany. The company plans to offer support and training not only for KOffice, but also for Open Document Format, and programming using the Qt toolkit. The company's business plan highlights its founders' hopes that KDE-related technologies will become mainstream, and illustrates the current level of acceptance of free software tools in business.

The founding members of KOffice source are all veteran developers of some aspect of KOffice. CEO Tobias Hintze and marketing coordinator Inge Wallin are both lead developers for KChart, while Boudewijn Rempt is lead maintainer for Krita. The company also includes a KDE founder, Kalle Mattias Dalheimer. Several of these principles have founded other small companies, most notably Cendio, a thin-client solutions company that was founded in 1992 and that Wallin suggests may be the oldest free and open source company still in existence.

Betting on KOffice 2.0

Talking a break from the KDE 4 launch in Mountain View, Calif., earlier this month, Wallin admits that "we don't see a demand yet" for the services that the company plans to offer. However, he quickly adds that "we formed the company now because we wanted to have everything in place when KOffice 2.0 is released."

Now in beta, the upcoming release of KOffice will be the first built to match the new KDE 4.0, and able to take advantage of the increased speed and improved display of its desktop environment. While Rempt admits that KOffice developers are not about to "try to match OpenOffice.org or Microsoft Office feature-for-feature out of the box," he suggests that its features are adequate for the average user and that its interface scores higher in usability than that of its rivals. "Most office software makes the user feel so dumb," he says.

In addition, Wallin suggests that KOffice's modular architecture makes development for it easier. "KOffice has plugins for everything. You can do KOffice-wide new data types. You can also do application-specific things like new image manipulation filters for Krita." He cites the example of a Google Summer of Code project in 2007 that added a musical notation editor in just two months.

"We've also got scripting sewn up," Rempt says. "Koffice is scriptable in Python, Ruby, JavaScript, Java, and Falcon. Same API for every language, and everyone can use the language they prefer."

In addition, Wallin and Rempt hope to use the features of the new version of the Qt toolkit used by KDE 4 to produce a Windows version of KOffice, and compete there as well as in existing GNU/Linux and Mac OS X versions.

The importance of Open Document Format support

KOfficeSource hopes, too, that its use of Open Document Format (ODF) as the default format will help to drive KOffice implementation. "There definitely is a demand, at least in the Netherlands, where more and more, government tends to request ODF compatibility for office systems," says Rempt, to which Wallin adds, "And also in lots of other countries: Some parts of Denmark, South Africa, Korea, you name it."

With ODF as an ISO standard, KOfficeSource's principals see the demand for their services as increasing. At the same time, they see KOffice's support for ODF as increasing the standard's credibility. "It's important for an ISO standard to have more than one implementation," Wallin says.

Far from being concerned with challenges from Microsoft's Open Office XML (OOXML) should it become another standard, they seem to discount it. Talking about the first Microsoft Office release to include the OOXML format, Wallin says, "Office 2007 is out there, but people do not save in OOXML. Every time I've seen Office 2007 in the real world, the organization using it has an explicit policy not to use OOXML. Instead, .DOC, .PPT, and .XLS are used as before" -- the previous default formats for Microsoft Office text documents, presentations, and spreadsheets.

"We think ODF is a key technology for our company," Wallin says. "And we also think that KOffice is or will be one of the best tools to handle it."

Training and Qt development

Eventually, the company hopes to sell training for both KOffice and other free and open source software applications -- "not only for end users, but also for sysadmins and other IT people," Wallin says. "We often find customers that need support and want to buy it for various open source applications. [But] the real need for training will come when companies start to integrate ODF into their automatic processes and manipulate documents automatically."

However, in the short term, KOfficeSource seems likely to derive most of its business from both free, and, perhaps, proprietary Qt development. "There is an amazing amount of demand for Qt development around the world," Rempt says. It's a surefire meal ticket. Anecdotally, a partner of ours has had the experience of just walking into a random office building in a certain city in the south of the United States and getting a contract for Qt. And I'm currently involved in traffic simulation software -- and all our competitors use Qt (which we discovered after downloading their demo software). Many companies seem to regard Qt as something of a secret weapon: 'We got this technology that brings us great time-to-market, so let's not tell anyone about it.'"

Rempt does admit that "KDE custom development demand lags a bit." He suggests, though, that the reason for the lag is that KDE is not yet cross-platform.


KOfficeSource is clearly as speculative as it is ambitious. However, both Wallin and Rempt see its creation as a necessary next step in the evolution of KOffice. "While working on KOffice, it was obvious that, if we ever want a widespread deployment, there needs to be a company that can help the users," Wallin says.

Initially, the company has been well-received by the KDE community, with Sebastian K├╝gler, a director of KDE e.V., the non-profit legal face of the popular desktop, saying in an article on KDE.news that the founding of the company "shows the commercial potential of the KOffice suite. It is great to see a company spinning off the KDE Community. Combining the commercial experience in the field with excellent connections in the community seems to be a recipe for success."

However, whether KOfficeSource has accurately predicted coming trends, or can create the relationship with the general KDE community that it envisions, remains to be seen. As Wallin says, "We're still very new."


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