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OpenOffice.org Team Cautiously Optimistic On AOL Office

Aug 13, 2004, 14:30 (10 Talkback[s])
(Other stories by Brian Proffitt)

By Brian Proffitt
Managing Editor

Members of the OpenOffice.org community are greeting yesterday's announcement of a new version of OpenOffice.org with cautious optimism.

Yesterday's announcement from America Online detailed the soon to be released "Optimized PC" package, which will feature a Systemax computer, 17-inch monitor, and color printer for approximately $300, plus 12 months of service from the ISP at $23.90 per month. The machine will be pre-loaded with Windows XP Home Edition, but interestingly for the open source community it will also come with a productivity suite labeled AOL Office--a suite that is clearly a derivation of Sun Microsystems' StarOffice or OpenOffice.org.

While the exact pedigree of AOL Office is not yet known, it is clear that in one way or another, this is the first time an OpenOffice.org derivation has been marketed as a pre-loaded option in a major retail PC sale.

This means good news for open source acceptance on the desktop, regardless of platform, and several open source advocates have applauded the move. Those advocates include members of the OpenOffice.org development community--though their applause is a little restrained as they wait to see what exactly AOL Office will look like.

Scott Carr, Documentation Maintainer for OpenOffice.org, believes that while the AOL Office is a positive move, if it is handled poorly, it could inadvertently damage the past works of the larger OpenOffice.org project.

"Anything that helps get the OpenOffice.org codebase out to users is a good thing. It would be nice to see what they do with the file formats, though," Carr said. "If they call files AOL Office Writer, AOL Office Calc, etc., that could potentially confuse users into believing that AOL Office will not work with StarOffice or OpenOffice.org. If they change the extensions for different formats that would be even more devastating."

Carr's primary concern is that file format compatability is maintained between OpenOffice.org, StarOffice, and AOL Office. If AOL Office's pedigree is played down too much, he stated, then people will treat the product as separate from OpenOffice.org and not realize the cross-platform and cross-product capabilities of the OpenOffice.org family of products.

"The Open Source model allows this [change of file formats] to happen, and it has helped in some ways, but I don't think this would help the project or their product in the long run. The OpenOffice.org codebase has the potential to really help in the Office market. The file formats are very well documented, and that is a good thing.

"Marketing AOL Office as a 'new' office suite is probably not a good idea either. If they market AOL Office as building on OpenOffice.org technology, then they could leverage the whole OpenOffice.org community for help and information on their product," Carr added. "Depending on how they market it in their online help and about screens, it could really help the OpenOffice.org and StarOffice communities. If they decide to bury the references to the OpenOffice.org community, users will see it as a seperate product, and treat it as such."

Carr has not been in any of the discussions between Sun Microsystems and AOL, so he is unsure as to what changes, if any, were made to the new AOL Office. If the changes are significant, Carr hopes those changes are communicated to the OpenOffice.org team so they can provide better support for AOL Office users when the time comes.

Carr's comments were supported and echoed by Louis Suárez-Potts, Community Manager of OpenOffice.org.

"From the open-source perspective, we are delighted that the work of the community and the open file format is being well received by such enterprises as AOL and that regular users, on Windows no less, will be given the chance to use software made by the open source community," Suárez-Potts said.

Suárez-Potts also expressed comments about the commoditization of the OpenOffice.org codebase. Though he and Carr both acknowedge that open source development allows for this, he is still concerned that there may be too much anonymity.

"In commodifying open source derivations, such as StarOffice, StarSuite, and now AOL Office, when is the community effort to be recognized? The danger, as we see it, is that the effect of such commodification is to erase the trace of its production," Suárez-Potts indicated. "We should hope that users would want to know how the product was made and sustained; why it is so good; and how it will improve."

There are practical reasons for this, Suárez-Potts explained.

"Further, we should hope, as Scott mentioned, that any user of AOL Office would understand that she could freely and easily exchange files with any user of OpenOffice.org, StarOffice, and any of the other many derivations; that she could further complement her AOL Office with OpenOffice.org, should she be using, say, Mac OS X or FreeBSD, or prefer to use a language not supported by StarOffice. We should hope, that is, that the user be aware that the derivation AOL Offfice exists in a rich milieu," he said.

As more product information is revealed about AOL Office, the OpenOffice.org team is sure to get the answers they seek. And the community will get a lesson in the pros and cons of open source commoditization.

Related Story:
New $299 AOL PC Features Open Source Software(Aug 12, 2004)