Software

The UK government embraces open source with the help of LibreOffice

The UK government is looking to embrace open source via a government-centric fork of LibreOffice. Jack Wallen ponders why this is important and how it can succeed.

Image: Jack Wallen

In a surprising turn of events (or not so surprising, depending upon your point of view), the UK has decided to adopt the open source "GovOffice" office suite (a fork of LibreOffice...sold and supported by Collabora Productivity). This deal is purported to serve in such a way as to compliment or replace existing solutions. Yet, last march UK's Cabinet Office shifted from MS Office to Google Apps (for over 2,000 users)...a clear sign they are done shelling out for MS Office licenses.

It makes sense. It should make sense to everyone. Period. End of story.

And guess what...Google Docs supports the Open Document Format (ODF) as well as it supports the Microsoft proprietary take on open standards. So transitioning between Google Docs and LibreOffice (or GovOffice) is as easy as File | Download as | Open Document Format (.odt). You can then upload to Google Drive and convert that .odt document back into Google Doc format. It's simple...and it works.

Anyway...back to the UK and GovOffice.

Consider this. If you opt for MS Office 365 for a business of 100 employees, you're dropping $825 USD per month. If you require the Premium edition of the suite, that's going to run the same business $1250 USD per month. That's either $9,900 or $15,000 USD per year...to use a suite of tools that you could download an alternative for free, for as many users as you like. And if you're an office of 2,000 users, you're looking at either $16,500 USD or $25,000 USD per month.

But are dollar signs enough?

If you take a look at what Collabora Productivity is offering (beyond the standard LibreOffice release), you'll find these additions:

  • Compatible with Microsoft Office and Google Docs
  • Customisation and L3 support available
  • 5 Year Extended LTS Support
  • Includes security and maintenance updates
  • Incremental Windows Installer .MSP patches
  • Windows Group Policy Object management
  • Major new releases annually

This is an important list for businesses and government offices...something all open source projects should take note of. Why? This is the perfect example of how you can make money from open source software. You support it, you customize it, you extend it, you integrate it, and you update it. Let me say that again:

  • Support
  • Customize
  • Extend
  • Integrate
  • Update

The above should be considered the "five foundations" for anyone hoping to turn open source software into a profitable business. And there's nothing wrong with that goal. Red Hat is doing it. SUSE is doing it. Other companies do it and more hope to do it. In fact, the more companies making money off of open source equates to one simple thing:

More open source is being used!

That, my friends, is a win-win.

To that end, I say "Bravo!" to Collabora Productivity...and any other company fighting against a de facto standard that should have faded into the sunset long ago. And to those naysayers professing this will fail, I would ask you one simple question:

Why will it fail?

Many will answer that too many companies depend upon the likes of Sharepoint and other deeply integrated components in order to properly function. They would also argue that is exactly what you get with the MS family of products. But what you also get with those products is a lack of predictability. What happens when a company depends upon a Sharepoint functionality that, out of nowhere, is deprecated and not replaced? What happens when an upgrade to one of those core products breaks the integration?

If open standards are truly followed, and systems well thought out and designed, those disparate, open source products will function together as a whole, even through upgrades and switching products in and out. Yes, it might take a bit more forethought; but in the end, you'll wind up with a much more predictable, dependable system.

Is that what Collabora Productivity is going to deliver to the UK government? The key here is that governments will want a long-term solution...not a quick fix. They'll also have requirements that the public sector may not demand:

  • Macros
  • DRM
  • Security

Those are some tricky points that must be addressed. Macros themselves are "iffy" at best. MS Office has proved that, even between iterations of the same software, macros often crash and burn. DRM can be broken on nearly any platform. Security? Many would argue that the ability to password protect a LibreOffice file simply isn't enough for a government agency dealing with extremely sensitive data. Consider this: With MS Office, you can install an extension that adds the ability to redact text. LibreOffice has no such tool (unless you're willing to add a black background to selected text...even then, it can easily be undone). How will Collabora Productivity get around these issues?

Big, important questions.

Suffice it to say, Collabora Productivity has a significant challenge ahead of them...one that has been attempted by many and achieved by few. Should Collabora Productivity pull this off, it will be a massive success for every open source project on the planet.

Will they succeed? Why or why not?

Also see

About Jack Wallen

Jack Wallen is an award-winning writer for TechRepublic and Linux.com. He’s an avid promoter of open source and the voice of The Android Expert. For more news about Jack Wallen, visit his website jackwallen.com.

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