Capital Engineering decides it has outgrown open source

One user who says he has tried open source alternatives ultimately opted for Microsoft desktop tools, but others suggest the choice is not always going to be so crystal clear.

Hussein Kaddoura, IT project manager for Capital Engineering, an Edmonton-based engineering consulting firm, said that his original choice for desktop tools was OpenOffice.

OpenOffice is an open source alternative to Microsoft Office with a similar complement of products like Write (instead of Word) and Calc (instead of Excel). It wasn’t a hard decision when the company first started, said Kaddoura. It employed only four people initially, and budgets were tight.

“As a young company, we didn’t want to spend a lot on IT. It wasn’t our main concern back then. We chose to use Linux on our server and OpenOffice for word processing,” he said.

But as the company grew, its priorities shifted. Oil and gas clients preferred to send and receive documents in Microsoft formats, and Capital Engineering decided it too difficult to deal with format conversion issues.

“We were wasting too much time. That was the main issue,” said Kaddoura. “I had to convince my boss to switch to Microsoft because of the cost. But Open Office is not free because we have to spend time dealing with documents. There are certain costs.”

It’s a common scenario, said Dan Kuznetsky: companies like the idea of owning software with no licensing issues, but aren’t prepared to deal with the formatting. Kuznetsky, formerly a software analyst with IDC Inc., is now executive vice-president of corporate and marketing strategy for Open-Xchange Inc., based in Tarrytown, N.Y.

Open source alternatives generally support most Microsoft formats, but become pigeon-holed as being difficult or cumbersome, he said. Staying in a Microsoft world, however, is no guarantee of compatibility.

“Just ask anyone who was using Office 95 when Office 97 appeared. There are even incompatibilities in Microsoft’s own product sets,” said Kuznetsky. Open source shouldn’t be blamed for file format changes, he said. “It’s a little bit like you’re upset with the dog, so you go kick the cat.”

Microsoft is cognizant of all of these issues, said Rob Helm, director of research for Kirkland, Wash.-based Directions on Microsoft, and has, over time, taken steps to address them.

It may be in Microsoft’s interest to maintain its market hegemony, but the Redmond giant has attempted to broaden the scope of its desktop product set. “Microsoft is trying to move to where people use Office documents not only to write letters and do spreadsheets,” said Helm. In order to accomplish that, it has to some degree embraced industry standards. Office 2003, for example, included XML schemas. Future editions will be even more inclusive, he said.

Kaddoura said he’s happy with the Microsoft products he uses and the level of customer service the company provides, but moving back to open source isn’t out of the question.

“I love Microsoft, but we run a business here,” he said. “If I found that Linux is more useful, I would switch.”

As Microsoft Office, OpenOffice and other desktop alternatives begin to mirror each other at the core level, the various vendors will have to find new ways to win market share, said Helm. “They’re going to have to fight it out on features.”

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