July 30, 2002

Why StarOffice for Mac is important to Linux

- By Robin "Roblimo" Miller -
A while back I asked an IBM mainframe marketing person which operating system she liked best. I expected her to say "AIX" or "Linux" because AIX and Linux are the two OSes that run on the product line she sells. But she said, "Companies big enough to buy mainframes have every operating system there is running somewhere. I can't afford to like one better than another." These are words of wisdom for enterprise-level Linux evangelists. They also tell you why StarOffice for Mac will be a big boost for Linux.

Let's start with a dose of reality: Microsoft Windows is and will continue to be the desktop OS of choice for the majority of corporate users. I may prefer Linux, you may prefer Linux, and many of our friends may prefer Linux, but we are not mainstream computer users, and we are especially not mainstream corporate computer users.

The people we know who use Macs are not necessarily mainstream computer users, either. Indeed, most of the corporate-type Mac users I know are graphic artists, and the only companies where artists are the majority of workers are in graphics-related businesses. Linux? In most work environments you'll find it on sysadmins', programmers', and perhaps a few tech writers' desktops, and hardly anywhere else, at least for now.

Mac and Windows users have Microsoft Office as a common document-sharing platform. Linux users can share most documents with MS Office users by using StarOffice, and can share StarOffice documents directly with Windows users who run the Windows version of StarOffice, but can not currently share StarOffice documents directly with Mac users. Two out of three isn't bad, but in a company that has all three operating systems -- plus Solaris and other commercial Unixes -- running in different areas, this is not good enough.

Imagine an IT manager with a choice between an office program suite that runs on only two desktop platforms and one that runs on most of the ones he has to deal with every day. Assume, too, that the more interoperable office suite costs one fifth as much as the "two platforms" solution. Suddenly StarOffice starts to look mighty attractive, and with any luck, by the time the Mac version of StarOffice is out in 2003, some of the clunkiness that makes StarOffice less than lovable (on any platform) will have been wrung out of it.

It looks like OpenOffice, the free but slightly less feature-rich version of StarOffice, will be available for Mac by the end of this year. This is good for home users and small companies that prefer Free Software to commercial offerings, and are happy with OpenOffice's less extensive font, template, and clipart selection, and can get along without formal, corporate-supplied support. The Mac OpenOffice release is also a great opportunity for corporate IT managers to test the idea of using a truly cross-platform office suite without investing in license purchases.

How this helps Linux users

Common complaint: "I use Linux at home and I love it, but I can't use Linux at work because we use MS Office and Outlook for almost everything." Ximian Evolution and Connector are busily solving the Outlook compatibility problem. A company that settles on StarOffice as its primary office suite gets rid of the Linux document compatibility problem. That's nice. But there are more corporate desktop Mac users than Linux users in the world, so from a corporate management viewpoint office-level interoperability between Windows and Mac is more important than worrying about Linux or Unix desktop users.

I don't care if other people use Windows, as long as they refrain from sucking up Internet bandwidth by exchanging viruses with each other. They've made their operating system choice and I've made mine, and we both have good reasons for our choices. Mac users have a right to their choice, too. All I want is to have a choice in operating systems instead of being forced to use a particular one "because everyone else uses it."

The more applications we have that work on all or most popular operating systems, the more operating system choice we have. Given that choice, I expect that a majority of desktop users will still prefer Windows. Fine. But if there is a true choice, brought about by the spread of multiple-OS software like StarOffice and OpenOffice, I suspect that more people will decide to use Linux on their work desktops than use it now, starting with programmers and sysadmins who use Linux most of the time, and boot into Windows only when they are forced to deal with the "business side" of the companies where they work.

Subtle shifts like these don't look like much on the surface, but in the long run they may be more important to Linux adoption than install fests, LUG booths at trade shows and other, more visible advocacy efforts.

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