Not So Open Source…

When I first read this article on ZDNet about an Italian region whose government was undertaking a migration away from Microsoft Office to an open source software package called LibreOffice, I must admit I thought it to be a compelling business decision.  However, as I reread the article and began discussing with members of my team, I quickly realized that not all that glitters is gold.

While at first blush, the cost savings on the licensing alone bears strong consideration, if not outright justification for such a migration (€56,000 per thousand workstation for LibreOffice vs. €284,000 for Microsoft Office), however, like every other IT decision, the devil is in the details.

When it comes to “justifying” a purchase, entities utilize various methods to make their go/no-go case, such as IRR or CAPM, but nothing is as fluid as ROI.  ROI is a lot like eggplant, meaning you can change the flavor of the end result depending on the ingredients you put into recipe.  Most calculations of ROI make certain assumptions around productivity savings, costs (and cost savings), and other future unknowns in order to manipulate the outcome.  While I am not saying that ROI is not a worthy exercise, but, assumptions based on future benefits, cost savings, productivity savings are just that – assumptions and can be influenced by emotional factors.  How many times do organizations go back and actually measure the real ROI, say 6 months after the project ends, to see how it matches up to predicted ROI?  How does one measure “productivity” before and after accurately?  It’s not like an office is the same as an assembly or production line where exact repeatable actions are performed every day.  It’s been my experience that sometimes when the numbers are so drastically different, one should look more critically at the assumptions.

The article further states the cost savings were not the only consideration in the decision, but also efficiency.  They stated that most of their users only use about 15% of the functionality of Microsoft Office (which sounds about right), but they have to pay for 100% of the software.  Hence the title of the article. Doesn’t sound fair, right?  Unless of course, you are one the people who use a part of the other 85%.  This has been a long standing criticism about Microsoft’s licensing model, but frankly since Office is by far the most dominant productivity software available in the world, there has been little market incentive to change that model.  Microsoft would contend that Office 365 offers that sort of pricing, functionality and flexibility, but I suspect, like most of our enterprise clients, the notion of storing documents in a Microsoft data center would not pass internal nor jurisdictional protocols.

Now, having said this we are not really talking about an efficiency argument, but still a cost argument. By substituting LibreOffice for Microsoft Office (and presumably getting a less feature rich application) would not increase productivity, but would maintain the same level of efficiency, at best.  Realistically, efficiency would diminish at least for a period of time, as there would be a learning curve for LibreOffice.  The article talks about investing in training, but that again would be a neutral factor and would probably cost more by moving to LibreOffice.  Never mind significantly reducing the available ecosystem of consultants, trainers, and support staff that Microsoft has developed over the last few decades in exchange for a very small population of LibreOffice experts.  So, I don’t buy the notion that going to LibreOffice would make you more efficient – 20mph is 20mph whether you are in a Ferrari or a Ford, the only difference is how much you paid for it.

Another detail devil is around the general misconception of open source software.  While Microsoft does support ODF, there will certainly be incompatibilities between documents created in Microsoft versus LibreOffice or any other office product, free or otherwise. Our research has determined that there are incompatibilities between every open source office software product available, not just Microsoft.  Just because the source is open does not mean the functionality or standards are identical. The article states that incompatibilities will essentially be phased out over time as more and more agencies adopt LibreOffice.  This is probably a fairly accurate statement because if everyone is using the same standard office software, then obviously incompatibilities would be minimized.  Again, until you encounter someone not using your standard.

In the end, the article reveals the real reason or least a large factor in the decision to move away from Microsoft.  Beyond the anticipated cost savings, the article cites certain cultural and ethical considerations.  I suspect this local spirit of independence helps this Italian region thumb its nose at Microsoft, the worldwide office productivity standard, and embrace a rather fringe solution which they feel they would have more influence over.  I’m sure that when it is all said and done, like most government initiatives, it will be well over budget and delivered well under on its Utopian promises of efficiency and independence.

Shawn Allaway is CEO of ConverterTechnology and can be reached via email.